Los Angeles Versus Houston PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #5 Houston (53-29)
Season series: L.A. Lakers, 4-0
Houston can win if…the defensive duo of Shane Battier/Ron Artest harass Kobe Bryant into sub.-.450 field goal shooting and Yao Ming and Luis Scola dominate Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
L.A. will win because…Bryant will accept the challenge of contending with Battier and Artest but he will do so within the context of his team's needs, scoring when he has the opportunity to do so but also creating plays for his teammates with his passing. Gasol will present a matchup problem for whoever guards him but it will be difficult for Houston to effectively double team Gasol when Bryant is on the court with him. Bynum was very ineffective in the first round but it is reasonable to expect that he will perform better versus Houston; it may sound strange to say this, but Bynum will probably be more comfortable playing against Yao than he was playing against the smaller, more mobile Utah frontcourt players, even though Yao is a better player than any of Utah's bigs.
Other things to consider: This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use "advanced basketball statistics" to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range. Bryant scored 31 of his 37 points in the second half in a Lakers 102-96 win on March 11, completely abusing Ron Artest and openly laughing at Artest's attempts to trash talk him, at one point saying derisively, "You're a comedian" after Artest bragged that he could shut Bryant down. Winning in the postseason requires mental toughness and concentration; while Artest has the necessary physical tools to try to challenge Bryant, Artest's mental game is sporadic at best: he loses focus at both ends of the court, which is the main reason that his career playoff field goal percentage is a paltry .389 despite his obvious athletic gifts. This is just the second time in Artest's 10 year career that he has made it past the first round of the playoffs.
Odom played consistently well in the first round but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon. You will probably hear a lot about the Lakers' supposedly superior depth. Even if Bynum plays well--which I expect him to do but this is far from certain--the Lakers' current rotation is hardly deep: based on minutes played versus the Jazz, their sixth man is Shannon Brown. While Brown played well in that series, the Lakers got very little production out of players seven through 11--and Luke Walton may be out for the rest of the postseason. The Rockets used a solid eight man rotation in their first round series versus Portland, though Kyle Lowery did not shoot very well. The Lakers' advantage in this series is not depth but rather that they have Kobe Bryant (and home court advantage).
The Lakers should win this series in five games but because of their concentration lapses, lack of depth and sporadic attention to detail on defense it would not surprise me if the Rockets steal a game--perhaps coming back from a double digit deficit--and extend the series to six games.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 PM