Alston's Three Pointers Launch Rockets Into First Place in the WestRafer Alston stole the show from headliners Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, making a career-high eight three pointers and scoring a career-high 31 points as the Houston Rockets extended their amazing winning streak to 22 with a 104-92 win over the L.A. Lakers. The victory moved the Rockets ahead of the Lakers in the standings, giving them sole possession of first place in the Western Conference. Alston set the tone early, scoring 13 of Houston's first 18 points, picking up the slack for McGrady, who did not score a point until the last three minutes of the third quarter and who finished with 11 points, six assists and three rebounds while shooting just 4-16 from the field. McGrady looked tired and admitted as much during and after the game--and that is quite understandable considering that he logged the full 48 minutes in two of the previous four games, a clear indication of just how important he is to the team's success. McGrady played 39 minutes on Sunday while Bryant had to step into the role of "marathon man," playing the first 47 minutes and not sitting out until the outcome was no longer in doubt. With both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum sidelined by injuries, the Lakers have no inside presence and are heavily reliant on Bryant to create offense. Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points but he shot just 11-33 from the field.
Bobby Jackson added 19 points on 7-9 shooting for the Rockets. The big performances by Alston and Jackson highlight something that has become a problem area for the Lakers: defending against opposing point guards. Derek Fisher played a big role early in the season for the Lakers and he has historically been a tough, physical defender but it is fair to wonder if the veteran is breaking down a bit after a long season. T.J. Ford, Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Beno Udrih are among the point guards who have hurt the Lakers recently; they are good players--and Paul is obviously an MVP candidate--but against the Lakers they all exceeded their normal production. To make matters worse, Fisher's shot seems to have abandoned him as well. He shot just .359 from the field in February and he is shooting .418 from the field so far in March. Fisher scored six points on 2-6 shooting versus Houston.
In one sense, this game was an atypical effort for Houston during the streak: McGrady has been carrying a lot of the offensive load since Yao Ming suffered a season-ending injury and even after this performance McGrady is still averaging 25.9 ppg in March. In another sense, though, this was a quintessential performance by the Rockets: they held the Lakers to a .413 field goal percentage, which is right in line with the stifling team defense that they have been playing. Shane Battier did an awesome job versus Bryant, though he of course had help from double-teams and often had shotblocker Dikembe Mutombo lurking in the paint. Speaking of the ageless former four-time Defensive Player of the Year, he has played a very important role since Yao got hurt, providing defense and rebounding while averaging about 19 mpg. Mutombo's contributions to Houston's success will likely go unnoticed by the average fan but this really refutes a couple false ideas that are frequently stated, namely that Allen Iverson and LeBron James single-handedly carried their teams to the Finals in 2001 and 2007 respectively. No one does anything single-handedly in a team sport. If anyone has really come close to doing it in the NBA it was Michael Jordan before Scottie Pippen arrived or Kobe Bryant the past couple years and you'll note that in both cases those teams struggled to win playoff games, let alone get out of the first round. Iverson and James carried a heavy offensive load for their teams but they received significant support in two ways: they had role players who made key shots at crucial times and their teams collectively bought into the defensive philosophies preached by their head coaches. Mutombo was an All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Sixers in 2001 and six years later he is still setting the tone in the paint, albeit for shorter stretches of time. Aaron McKie was the Sixth Man of the Year for those Sixers, while Tyrone Hill, Eric Snow and George Lynch also made important contributions during that season. Last year, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and even the much maligned Larry Hughes all played key roles at various times during the team's Finals run.
What does this trip down memory lane to 2001 and 2007 have to do with Houston? The Rockets, like the 2001 Sixers and 2007 Cavaliers, have a transcendent player--Tracy McGrady--who is surrounded by "no-name" players who buy into their coach's defensive system, who play unselfishly on offense and who are able to make the open shots that become available when their star player is double-teamed. I never bought into the idea that the Rockets would miss the playoffs without Yao; Houston has always played very well when McGrady is healthy. However, I did not consider the Rockets to be much of a threat in the postseason without Yao but I am starting to reconsider that notion. This team plays hard all the time and they "look" a little like the 2001 Sixers and the 2007 Cavaliers. Of course, one objection to this idea is that those teams won conferences that were considered to be weak while the West is very strong this year--but Houston has the best record in the West right now! Why shouldn't Houston be considered a contender? Other than San Antonio, none of the West's top teams have ever won anything and most of them are battling injuries while also trying to integrate newly acquired players into their systems. I'm not predicting that Houston is going to win the West; I consider the Spurs to be the favorites until they are eliminated (or unless Tim Duncan gets hurt) but at this point the Rockets are as "legit" as anyone else in the West.
Just as it is important to give credit to the role players on the 2001 Sixers, 2007 Cavs and 2008 Rockets, it is also important to clearly state that McGrady--when healthy--is every bit as talented as Iverson or James. ABC's Mark Jackson said that Houston Coach Rick Adelman told him, "Tracy McGrady is the best passer I've ever seen." Think about that for a moment: Adelman played against Pistol Pete Maravich, coached against Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas and coached Clyde Drexler (5.6 apg in his career, 8.0 apg one season in case you forgot) and Terry Porter. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy, who coached McGrady for three seasons, elaborated about McGrady's passing skills, saying that he is "the second best pick and roll player in the league behind Steve Nash and it's not even close...People see the thing in front of them but he can see to the opposite corner, the opposite wing. His size makes him special. He can pass over the defense."
As for the Lakers, there is no question that this was hardly a vintage performance by Bryant. Still, there were several plays that illustrate how valuable he can be even when he is not shooting well. In the third quarter, Bryant got an assist by feeding DJ Mbenga a lob pass. To call Mbenga "offensively challenged" is an understatement; any assist to him should actually count for two assists in the boxscore. Although Bryant attempted a lot of shots, it was also clear throughout the game that he was trying to involve Mbenga and others in the offense. The problem, as Michael Jordan once put it when he was criticized for not making his teammates better the way that Magic Johnson did, is that it is hard to make chicken salad out of chicken-bleep. Bryant made several great passes to Mbenga, Vladimir Radmanovic and others that sometimes did not even result in shot attempts after the recipient bobbled the ball. After Mbenga mishandled passes from Bryant on consecutive first half possessions, Mark Jackson said, "I understand the unselfishness of Kobe Bryant but those last two plays have to be shot attempts. The Rockets would prefer Mbenga taking shots as opposed to Bryant."
Early in the second quarter, Ronny Turiaf caught a lob from Jordan Farmar and dunked the ball. Van Gundy immediately said, "You know who made that play? Kobe Bryant. He was on the other post and Shane Battier did not want to leave him to come and help. That's where greatness stands out even when you don't have the ball." On the opening possession of the fourth quarter, the Lakers ran a similar play: Farmar dribbled the ball up the court and Bryant flashed into the left block. Farmar passed to Luke Walton, who acted like he was going to feed the ball to Bryant. Instead, Farmar cut off of a back pick set by Turiaf and caught a lob from Walton for an easy hoop. The back side was completely empty because the defense was focused on Bryant.
Plays like those are why I laugh when I hear about how great Bryant's supporting cast is, as if that disqualifies him from winning this year's MVP. Let's not get things twisted here: Steve Nash won two MVPs while playing with All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, All-Defensive Team member Raja Bell and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa. Bryant has spent the past three seasons bereft of any teammates who are All-Stars, All-Defensive Team members or Sixth Man Award candidates. This season, Andrew Bynum emerged as a solid big man and the Lakers vaulted to near the top of the West even before the Gasol trade. Bynum was not even an All-Star, mind you, and there were no other All-Stars in sight on the roster, but just by having a big man who can actually catch the ball, rebound and block some shots Bryant's Lakers became contenders. Then, Bynum got hurt and everyone said that the Lakers' season was over--but the Lakers went 6-5 without Bynum, including road losses at Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit, and they were still in the thick of the playoff hunt even before they acquired Gasol. The Gasol deal was a coup, no doubt about it, not only because of who the Lakers got but also because they did not give up anyone who was a part of their rotation. Gasol is a smart and skilled basketball player who can catch (no small thing considering some of the big men Bryant has played with recently), shoot, pass, rebound and block shots (more so as a weakside defender than a one on one post defender). Still, Gasol has never won a playoff game, he has never made the All-NBA Team and his one and only All-Star appearance took place in 2006--yet as soon as he joined the team the Lakers rapidly moved up in the standings until they claimed the top spot in the West. The Spurs have three All-Stars. The Suns have four players who have made the All-NBA First Team at least once during their careers. The Mavs have the reigning MVP, an All-Star small forward, a sixth man who used to contend for the scoring title and a Hall of Fame point guard. The Nuggets have two of the top five scorers in the league and the Defensive Player of the Year. Yet as soon as Bryant got one player who has made exactly one All-Star team his squad moved past everyone else in the standings. If Bryant can make the Lakers the best team in the West with one one-time All-Star then what would he do if he were paired with at least one perennial All-Star? Oh, wait, we already know the answer to that: win three championships.
When people rave about how well Bryant's supporting cast is playing this year they don't seem to comprehend that Bryant has a lot to do with that success. When those players are on the court with him the defense is tilted toward Bryant. You don't think that teams can stop a Walton to Farmar lob play if the defense is not loaded up toward Bryant? How tough would it be to stop that Farmar to Turiaf lob without Bryant attracting extra defensive attention? If you read the names Odom, Walton, Farmar, Turiaf and Vujacic and you are thinking those guys make the playoffs in the West without Bryant then you are tripping more than Phil Jackson and Bill Walton did in the 1970s.
Before Gasol got hurt, we got a nice reminder of what kind of playmaker Bryant can be when he has a big man who can catch and finish. Bryant was the leading playmaker on those three Lakers championship teams early in this decade and when Gasol came aboard Bryant showed that he is more than willing to take up that role again when he has at least one player who can catch and finish; Bryant seemed positively giddy to be playing with one legit top level player, albeit a player who is at the lower end of the top level (i.e., not even an All-NBA Team caliber performer). The Lakers have a tough stretch of games coming up but Bryant will make sure that they hang tough until Gasol returns--and then we will once again hear about how Bryant should not win the MVP because his supporting cast is so strong, as if anyone in his right mind would trade the non-Bryant portion of the Lakers for the supporting casts of any of the top teams in the West.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM