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Houston Gives Lakers a Problem


I'm okay, I'm okay. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)


When Kobe Bryant's left knee banged into Yao Ming's right knee and Yao dropped like a Redwood, I was immediately overcome with apprehension. Not because I have a particular rooting interest for the Houston Rockets or Yao; I just didn't want to see another star go down in a postseason that has already robbed us of Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady, Jameer Nelson and Elton Brand and given us several more hobbled stars like Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Tim Duncan.

As Yao rolled over in agony, grabbing his knee and wincing, it looked like his season was over -- and the Rockets were done, too. But Yao's pride suddenly kicked in. After limping toward the locker room, Yao stopped in the tunnel, begged Rockets trainer Keith Jones to let him go back, and he returned to game to score eight of his team-high 28 points -- including a critical 21-foot jumper -- in the final four minutes to give the Rockets a 100-92 win.

I refuse to call the loss surprising but the Lakers were due for a setback like this one. They have not looked particularly good this postseason. It's as if they got back Andrew Bynum, watched the San Antonio Spurs get ousted by Dallas and thought this was going to be easy afternoon cruise down Rodeo Drive toward the NBA Finals. They toyed around with the Utah Jazz, jumping out to big leads, taking long naps, and then escaping with closer-than-necessary wins.

At some point the Lakers have to approach this postseason like a team on a mission to dominate. If they want to be champions, they have to make their opponents submit. Instead, they look more like a team that is expecting their opponent to cower or roll over. Houston -- which has already dealt with season-ending losses to McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo and watched teammate Carl Landry come back after getting shot -- is not that team.


No. 24, You're no Brandon Roy. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Rockets are much less talented than the Lakers, but they have a blue-collar edge that contrasts nicely with their glitzy, finesse, Hollywood opponent. After winning the franchise's first playoff series in 12 years, the Rockets also look like the far hungrier team. But Houston might have just provided the necessary jolt to the Lakers to inspire some of their best basketball, because they are one remaining playoff team that has yet to play a great, 48-minute game this postseason -- and they are the team most people expect to win the championship. The Staples Center fans showered the Lakers with boos as they left the floor on Monday after a loss that should serve as a reminder that they cannot show up and simply outscore opponents on the way to a 15th banner.

And as much as I thought Ron Artest was a complete fool for saying that Brandon Roy was "the best player" he's ever played against -- including Bryant -- that statement may have helped his team steal Game 1. Bryant usually doesn't need any extra fuel, turning real or perceived slights into opportunities to dominate. He would've had enough on Monday after hearing the official word that he finished a distant, distant second in MVP voting to LeBron James and received fewer first-place votes than Dwyane Wade.

But Artest's comments actually baited Bryant into turning the game into a one-on-five affair during some stretches. It was an especially bad approach when Bryant was fighting through an illness the team said was a sore throat. Bryant scored 32 points, but he needed 31 shots, with the Mohawk-sporting Artest and Shane Battier harassing him into missing 17 of them. The worst part is that Bryant also led the Lakers in assists with just four.

This was just one game, so I won't overreact. I still have the Lakers winning this series in six games, but if they keep having more performances like last night, the Rockets will blow right by them -- like Aaron Brooks did repeatedly against Derek Fisher. That is, if Yao isn't more hurt than he let on. He'll probably be sore this morning.

The Lakers should be upset.

By Michael Lee  |  May 5, 2009; 9:06 AM ET
 
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Comments

Yao is the reason Thabeet has so-much value in this draft. Western teams especially would love to have Thabeet if for no-other reason but to slow Yao down.

Posted by: closg | May 5, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

D Fish is starting to become a liability on the ball defensively. I see the Lakers being taken to a game 7 in this series.

Don't be surprised if the Nuggets take them out in the next round either.

Posted by: elfreako | May 5, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Lakers are the more talented team, but Houston matches up well with them. Also, I don't think the Lakers have anyone on their roster besider Farmar who can keep up with Brooks. Yao is a tough matchup even for a team with the Lakers size up front. I wouldn't be shocked if the Rockets took this in 6 games or pushed the Lakers to the limit to win it. It's going to take a lot more than Kobe to beat the Rockets.

Posted by: wizfan89 | May 5, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

When you have Battier and Artest on the floor, options are limitless defensively. You are able to do what no team can do, throw multiple quality man defenders at Kobe -- not allowing him to get in his flow during the game. Throw that in with Yao altering shots in the paint and the Lakers have a real problem. Offensively, the game starts and ends with Brooks. With his speed and dribble penetration, the Lakers are forced to collapse opening up shooting lanes for Artest in addition to dump offs to Yao (who can hit the elbow jumper). For the Lakers to win, Lamar Odom needs to take advantage of Scola. With Kobe seeing Artest and Battier in his sleep, Odom's the only part of the triangle offense that has a winnable matchup on every play.

Posted by: wizfan305 | May 5, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I really like the Rockets, but I don't see them winning this series. When you say they don't have anybody who can stop Brooks' penetration, sure they do -- Bryant. And the Rockets don't have real high-quality shooting like Tracy McGrady provides to counter it.

Be interesting to see what happens next.

Posted by: Samson151 | May 5, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The Lakers are the favorites but I wouldn't be shocked to see Houston win this. Unlike Utah, Houston plays solid physical defense that can wear down an uptempo offensive team like L.A. If a team holds the Lakers under 100, they have a pretty good chance to win.

This game was pretty much a blueprint for how to play the Lakers: keep everybody else from having a big game and force Kobe to try and win it by himself. Kobe scored 32 points but took 31 shots to do it, and only got to the FT line 5 times. That's a lot of contested, missed jump shots.

Posted by: kalo_rama | May 5, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Those in favor of signing Artest of Stevenson were silly -- the economics do not and would not make sense. Artest makes a ton more than Stevenson. Everyone knows Artest is a better player than Stevenson but this is not NBA Live -- you cannot throw all the high caliber players you want onto one team. It does not work that way, genius.
---------------------------------------

Ahh one of my favorite NBA arguments. When in doubt just say "the money wouldn't have worked". Not true at all. The Kings were looking to move Artest desperately. They ended up settling for Donte Green (28th pick), Bobby Jackson, and a 2009 1st. We could have provided a better deal, with more incentive (since we're in the east) with Songaila, sign and trade Stevenson, Javale McGee (18th pick), and a 2009 1st. I personally would have even been willing to switch Blatche and Songaila in the deal if thats what it took to land a guy like Artest.

Posted by: OwlWiz | May 5, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Beware Rockets fans---

But first of all congratulations for comming in and punching us in the mouth. Take nothing away from the Houston Rockets either. However, the Lakers will win this in 6, I promise you. Laker haters beware and keep quiet so you don't have to eat your words. out---

Posted by: TonyinLosAngeles | May 5, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Take 2:

Also, the Lakers are so good that they play down to the level of their opponents. Its like when you were playing one on one or ping pong against an inferior opponent when you were a child. You had to dig down deep to just muster up the will to win. Lakers in 6---

Posted by: TonyinLosAngeles | May 5, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Stevenson was not signed to a contract last year so there would have been no sign and trade for Artest and the rest of the stuff you talk about. All you did was add more players in an attempt to make a more appealing offer.

Add in that Artest plays SF and some SG, maybe. So he plays the same position as Butler or we move Butler to SG. That would be interesting but lets not pretend that with Artest comes a lot of risk. We cannot time travel to see that Artest won't be a major issue.

Posted by: Chad32 | May 5, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

OwlWiz

You still do not explain how that works under the salary cap. The previous poster is right. This is not NBA Live. You actually have to make the money work with facts. You know their current salaries compared to the cap. You actually have to study and do the math, not just name players and assume it adds up.

Posted by: ged0386 | May 5, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Odom is the matchup problem. Also they need to stick Kobe on the point guards on occasions. Fisher is only 6'1 and up there in age and has never been a defensive stopper. The lakers need a ron harper type defender who is long but quick enough to shut down the point guards they will face in the playoffs. Maybe Ariza can do it.

Posted by: ged0386 | May 5, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

How, exactly, are the Lakers more talented? I'm sure you're not referring to Mr. Invisible, Lamar Odom, or Pau 'Someone forgot the L' Gasol. Or the human holding foul, Andrew Bynum. And I KNOW you're not talking about 'Rushmore' Vujacic, who couldn't guard anyone in a game of HORSE. Or Derek Fisher, who looked liked he was chasing his grandson around in the guise of Aaron Brooks. Surely, these aren't the 'uber-talented' players to which you're referring.

The Rockets led last night's game for 47 minutes, and frankly made it look easy. The Lakers played soft and looked like they were waiting for the officials to stop the game and award it to them by default. A great team would not have let the other team waltz into their dead-silent gym, punch them in the face and take game 1. Then again, the Lakers aren't a great team.

Posted by: rahim517 | May 5, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

"Yao is the reason Thabeet has so-much value in this draft. Western teams especially would love to have Thabeet if for no-other reason but to slow Yao down.

Posted by: closg | May 5, 2009 10:31 AM "

And the same reason why Peter John Ramos, at the same height as Thabeet, has no value.

Yao has skills on both sides of the court. Thabeet doesn't.

Posted by: DC_MAN88 | May 5, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Chad32:
"Stevenson was not signed to a contract last year so there would have been no sign and trade for Artest and the rest of the stuff you talk about."

Stevenson wasn't signed, thus the reason for the sign and trade. Artest earns about $7m on his contract, we ended up signing Stevenson for $3.5m.

"All you did was add more players in an attempt to make a more appealing offer."

Um yeah, thats the point.

"Add in that Artest plays SF and some SG, maybe. So he plays the same position as Butler or we move Butler to SG. That would be interesting but lets not pretend that with Artest comes a lot of risk. We cannot time travel to see that Artest won't be a major issue."

We can't time travel, but what we did know at the time was that the Big 3 even when healthy are a competitive squad, however no one will confuse them with a championship squad. Artest added to the Big 3, makes us a championship level squad. We knew that last summer. As for risk, you have to take that sometimes to win a championship. I thought that was the whole point of this thing.

Posted by: OwlWiz | May 6, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

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