Rockets Lead Wire to Wire, Blast Lakers 95-80Luis Scola, not Pau Gasol, looked like an All-NBA forward as the Houston Rockets defeated the L.A. Lakers 95-80, forcing a game seven and improbably putting the Western Conference's number one seed on the brink of elimination. Scola scored 24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and had 12 rebounds, thoroughly abusing any and all Laker frontcourt players who tried to guard him: Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all ended up looking like David Robinson being taken apart by Hakeem Olajuwon a decade and a half ago. Scola is a very good player but ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy lambasted the Lakers' horrible post defense, calling it "inexcusable (lack of) attention to detail" because Gasol, Bynum and Odom repeatedly let Scola catch the ball deep in the paint and turn to shoot over his left shoulder. The defense was so bad that Van Gundy offered a radical solution, suggesting that the Lakers put 6-6 shooting guard Kobe Bryant on the 6-9, 245 pound power forward Scola: "I want someone who wants to compete with him right now and I don't see any competitive spirit in the post defensively." Bryant has made the All-Defensive First Team seven times--including this year--but if the Lakers have to resort to guarding a power forward with their shooting guard then they are in pretty big trouble. Bryant was visibly displeased with the performance of several of his teammates, including Gasol, who Bryant spoke to very animatedly during a timeout early in the game--and you know what that means: we are all about to be subjected to yet another batch of articles by sportswriters posing as psychiatrists providing detailed commentary about every facial expression Bryant made and every harsh word that he uttered.
The Rockets knocked out the Lakers with a three punch offensive combination: Scola softened them up with low post jabs--especially in the first quarter, when he had 14 points on 6-9 shooting--then Carl Landry came off the bench to hit them with body blows (15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) and Aaron Brooks used his speed and deft shooting (26 points on 8-13 marksmanship) to put the Lakers down for the count. The Lakers' pick and roll defense is in shambles and their big men are so reluctant to protect the hoop you'd think that the basket is radioactive; a typical "defensive" sequence for the Lakers begins with Gasol showing up softly in a halfhearted attempt to trap Brooks on a screen/roll play and ends with Brooks lofting an easy shot over Odom or Bynum.
Scola, Brooks and Landry were so productive that the Rockets survived Ron Artest's awful shot selection; Artest scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, often breaking off plays to simply dribble around aimlessly before firing up low percentage bricks. The problem with Artest is not merely his shooting percentage but the quality and timing of the shots he takes, because when you take bad shots your team has little chance to get offensive rebounds or even properly balance the court in transition defensively.
The Rockets outscored the Lakers 15-1 to start the game, with Scola pouring in eight of those points. The Lakers did not score a field goal until Bryant made a layup at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter and by that time they trailed 17-3. Scola made the score 19-3 by drilling a jump hook in Gasol's eye and Van Gundy said, "He's coming back to his left shoulder. The catch is too easy, the jump hook is too easy." In other words, Gasol provided no resistance either prior to Scola catching the ball or after Scola received the ball in the paint. That is simply unacceptable. After the game, Gasol said, "I have faith in our team. I think we're going to respond to this loss. We're going to be mentally ready." That just begs the question of why they--and specifically he--were not mentally ready for this game. Gasol is a skillful player but it is clear that it is not an accident that he had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to joining forces with Bryant last season.
Near the end of the first quarter, Van Gundy declared, "They (the Rockets) are just dominating the paint and again it comes back to frontcourt toughness. If you have people who want to protect the basket you have a chance. If you don't you have no chance." Van Gundy is a great game analyst but I don't know what kind of future he has at ESPN if he continues to tell the truth and does not adhere to the journalistic convention of blaming Bryant for everything that goes wrong with the Lakers.
When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was interviewed after the first quarter with his team trailing 27-15, he said, "Pau is playing a lackluster kind of game. We have to get him going."
Some people talk about how talented this Lakers team supposedly is and how offensively explosive they can be but the reality is that this team is mentally soft and the reason that they can be offensively explosive is that Bryant constantly attracts multiple defenders; without Bryant, this team would struggle to win 40 games, particularly in the West: can anyone really say with a straight face that a Bryant-less Lakers team would be as good as the Nash-Shaq-Richardson Suns that won 46 games and did not even make the playoffs this year?
Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points but he shot 11-27 from the field as the Rockets did a good job of sending multiple defenders at him; one of his misses was a half court heave just before the halftime buzzer but there is no denying that the Rockets--spearheaded by Shane Battier--made Bryant work for everything that he got. So much has been made of Houston's plan to force Bryant to shoot contested two point jumpers but Bryant managed to get to the hoop often enough to shoot 9-10 from the free throw line; he also missed several shots in the lane that could not accurately be described as long jumpers, so depending on your perspective he either missed some makeable shots or the Rockets defended him well on those attempts or Bryant was fatigued due to having to carry such a heavy load. However you look at it, the bottom line is that he is averaging 29.7 ppg on .463 field goal shooting while committing just 1.7 turnovers per game this series so it cannot objectively be said that the Rockets have uncovered some magic formula for stopping Bryant: they are alternating two All-Defensive Team members on him plus sending multiple help defenders and he is still exceeding his regular season scoring average while matching his regular season field goal percentage and cutting down his turnover rate.
One situation with Bryant that bears watching--assuming that the Lakers win game seven--is that at the 2:03 mark of the second quarter he picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs; by NBA rule, any player receiving seven technical fouls in the playoffs is automatically suspended for one game. Van Gundy immediately said of Bryant's technical foul, "That's a joke" and Mark Jackson chimed in, "That's an awful call, no question about it--a missed call." What happened was Artest committed a loose ball foul against Bryant--which the officials called--and then Artest jumped backwards as if Bryant had unloaded a massive blow to his face. Artest's theatrics completely fooled the officials, who whistled Bryant for a technical foul. Moments later, Artest and Bryant were standing next to each other calmly talking during a stoppage of play and Van Gundy narrated what viewers could see by reading Bryant's lips: "Kobe just told him he flopped and that's exactly what happened." The league office has the authority to rescind technical fouls and since there is absolutely no question that this particular technical foul was bogus look for the NBA to issue yet another apology and wipe that call out of the record books.
Gasol finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, which simply is not good enough considering that he is being guarded by players who are much smaller and less skilled than he is. Odom had a game-high 14 rebounds but scored just eight points; he is hindered by the back injury that he suffered in game four but it's not like the Lakers can consistently depend on him to be productive even when he is fully healthy. Bynum scored zero points and had seven rebounds in 19 minutes; I have a vivid imagination but I cannot picture a scenario in which he either would have made a difference in last year's Finals versus Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins/Leon Powe or in which he will make a difference in this year's Finals versus Cleveland's versatile and deep frontcourt--assuming that the Lakers make it to the Finals.
Let's not forget that vaunted Lakers bench. Bynum was the nominal starter, though Odom played more minutes than Bynum did; as for the other guys, Jordan Farmar played very well (13 points on 5-10 field goal shooting) but Luke Walton (zero points on 0-5 field goal shooting), Sasha Vujacic (two points on 1-3 field goal shooting) and Shannon Brown (two points on 0-3 field goal shooting) contributed nothing. The Rockets are now missing two All-Star players--Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who has been out of the lineup for months--which means by definition that their bench has been depleted because two reserves have been converted into starters but they got an outstanding performance from Landry and a couple timely shots from Von Wafer (five points on 2-3 field goal shooting in five minutes). Kyle Lowry did not shoot well but he had four assists in 15 minutes, twice as many as the five Lakers' reserves produced in 88 combined minutes.
The fully loaded Celtics--with a healthy Kevin Garnett, plus James Posey and P.J. Brown coming off of the bench--were pushed to seventh games twice last season and still won a championship. NBA history shows--and we have already seen in this series--that momentum does not carry over from game to game, particularly when there is a shift in venue. The likelihood is that the Lakers will win on Sunday, quite possibly by double digits, but the way that the Lakers are playing does not bode well for their championship ambitions, even if they do eliminate the Rockets and move on to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM