Houston Gives Lakers a Problem
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.
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.
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