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The Rockets Tried Small Ball. Did It Work? Well, They Beat the Lakers

“We’ve got Russ, who’s a unique talent,” D’Antoni said. “And I think we need to play to his talents.”

Against the Lakers, D’Antoni stationed five players on the perimeter — a scheme that dragged defenders to the 3-point line, and Westbrook had seams to the hoop, scoring 41 points while shooting 17 of 28 from the field. Teammates enjoyed all the open space, too. Late in the second half, on a designed play that caught the attention of the analytics gurus who run the Twitter account Positive Residual, the Rockets’ Danuel House Jr. slipped a screen near the top of the key, and Covington whipped the ball to him for a dunk.

For D’Antoni, it was a game that fulfilled his vision in other ways. He saw a scrambling defense that caused problems for the Lakers, who were limited to 18 points in the fourth quarter. He watched his team sink 19 of 42 3-pointers. And he delighted in the seamless addition of Covington, who was Rockets’ most versatile player in his debut.

“He did a lot of things,” said D’Antoni, whose team improved to 33-18 ahead of its game against the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.

Covington came off the bench and played terrific defense — he blocked a shot by Davis on a critical possession in the fourth quarter — and sank two 3-pointers in the final three minutes. He finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists just hours after joining the team in Los Angeles.

“My teammates put me in the right position,” Covington said, “and I just did what I was told.”

D’Antoni, long celebrated for his creativity, knows that his latest experiment is a gamble. He was asked whether he had considered going with a small-ball lineup earlier in his career.

“It depended how long my contract was,” he said. “And now it’s like, ‘O.K.!’”

He was joking about the fact that his contract with the Rockets expires after the season, and that perhaps he does not have much to lose if this whole thing is a flop.

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