Rockets Stun Lakers, 100-92Yao Ming (28 points on 9-17 shooting, 10 rebounds) outscored Pau Gasol (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (10 points, three rebounds) combined as the Houston Rockets beat the L.A. Lakers 100-92 to seize home court advantage in the Western Conference semifinals. Ron Artest scored 21 points, dished off for a game-high seven assists and shot an uncharacteristically efficient 8-15 from the field. The quickness of Aaron Brooks proved to be a real X factor, as the diminutive Houston point guard scored 19 points on 7-14 shooting as no Laker defender could stay in front of him; Brooks created scoring opportunities for himself or for his teammates on several occasions when the shot clock was running down.
Kobe Bryant had 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals, tying Gasol by playing a game-high 44 minutes. The Lakers trailed for the vast majority of the game, so Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half; Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson would normally rest Bryant from the last few minutes of the third quarter through the first few minutes of the fourth quarter but Jackson found out the hard way during this season that if he follows that type of substitution pattern when the other Lakers are floundering then the Lakers will lose--but the flip side of that is when the Lakers depend on Bryant to carry the bulk of the scoring load while also grabbing the second most rebounds and tying for the team lead in assists there is a danger that he will become run down. Bryant shot 6-9 from the field in the third quarter and 4-10 in the fourth quarter, finishing 14-31. The Rockets will surely receive a lot of praise for "containing" Bryant but I only agree partially with that assessment; Bryant's .452 field goal percentage in this game is right around his career average so the Rockets did not really force him to miss shots at an unusual rate but they did a very good job of limiting him to just five free throw attempts. Shane Battier guarded Bryant early in the game, while Artest generally handled the assignment in the fourth quarter--but the real adjustment that the Rockets made down the stretch is that they started sending more and more help defenders toward Bryant as it became increasingly apparent that no other Lakers were able to consistently make open shots; that is much like the defensive scheme that the Boston Celtics used versus the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Lakers shot 2-18 from three point range and while Bryant contributed to that poor number with his errant 1-7 long distance shooting the other Lakers shot 1-11 and many of those misses were wide open looks that Bryant created either with dribble penetration or by simply attracting help defenders.
Think about the standard that Bryant has set: 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting better than .450 is basically an "average" game for him--and some people will surely spin this into being a "bad" game. Yet, Bryant's 32 points are more than Dwyane Wade scored in five of his seven playoff games this year and that field goal percentage--against a team that plays much better defense than the Atlanta Hawks do--is better than Wade's performance in three of seven games and only slightly worse (a difference of one missed field goal) than Wade's shooting in three of the other four playoff games. Paul Pierce has shot worse than .452 in six of his eight playoff games this year and he has yet to score more than 29 points. So, when the "stat gurus" and the media sheep who follow them start talking about how the Rockets "shut down" Bryant in game one, keep the above numbers in mind: the Rockets' needed two All-Defensive Team players plus a 7-6 center and a wall of help defenders in order to "hold" Bryant to 32 points and his normal shooting percentage.
Although Bryant did not play poorly in game one, the likelihood is that he will play even better in game two--and the Lakers will need that kind of performance from him, because game two is a must win for the Lakers, who cannot depend on receiving solid production from their much vaunted "deep" roster. Pau Gasol had a good rebounding game, though some of his board work consisted of collecting his own misses; overall, he was not strong with the ball (four turnovers) and he missed a number of wide open shots, connecting on just six of 14 attempts: considering the fact that his shots are either open jumpers or shots in the paint--often against just one defender--his shooting percentage is a bigger concern for the Lakers than Bryant's. The Lakers can win with Bryant shooting around .450 but they need Gasol to be up around the .550 range that he has maintained since joining the team and benefiting from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives.
Andrew Bynum scored 10 points in 15 minutes on 5-10 shooting but he shot a lot of jumpers, attempted no free throws, grabbed only three rebounds, committed three fouls in his short stint and missed several defensive assignments. Nothing that I have seen from Bynum convinces me that his presence would have made much difference in the 2008 Finals, nor am I convinced that he is the star in the making that so many people think that he is. What we have seen from Bynum in his brief career is that he can be productive for short stretches but that he is also injury prone and foul prone, two tendencies that make it difficult for him to stay on the court long enough to develop a good rhythm or have much of a consistent impact. If Bynum can stay healthy and if Bynum can stay out of foul trouble then maybe he will develop into a significant contributor but, as former Browns' Coach Sam Rutigiliano used to say, "If 'ifs and buts' were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day."
Trevor Ariza played a solid game (10 points on 4-8 shooting, four rebounds, two steals). Usually his defense is a plus for the Lakers but Ariza really struggled to guard Artest due to Artest's significant strength advantage. Here is a thought exercise for you: look up the rosters of the other 15 playoff teams and figure out how many of those teams would play Ariza ahead of their current starting small forward. Don't get me wrong: I think that Ariza is wonderfully suited to be a James Posey-type of impact player off of the bench for a very good team.
Derek Fisher shot poorly (3-10) and might have gotten whiplash from all the times that Brooks blew past him.
In my series preview I noted that Lamar Odom played well in the first round versus Utah "but that most likely means that he is due to have a five point, two rebound disappearing act soon." He was not quite that bad but with Bynum's playing time limited due to foul trouble the Lakers needed more from Odom than nine points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. He also committed five fouls and the Lakers' bench as a whole contributed 18 points and 12 fouls, compared to 16 points versus four fouls for the Rockets' bench.
Shannon Brown--the Lakers' sixth man in minutes played versus Utah--scored two points in 13 minutes, Sasha Vujacic had two points in 14 minutes, while Jordan Farmar (three points in three minutes) and Josh Powell (two points in five minutes) made cameo appearances.
In contrast, the Rockets received good production from every member of the starting lineup--Battier's boxscore numbers are not much to look at but his job was to defend Bryant while keeping him off of the foul line and he did that task adequately. Bench players Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry, who combined to shoot 5-8 from the field, had a positive impact.
The Lakers swept the regular season series versus Houston 4-0 but they needed fourth quarter rallies spearheaded by Bryant to win each of those games. Bryant had nine fourth quarter points on 4-10 field goal shooting in game one but that was not enough to overcome the sluggish offense and sloppy defense played by the rest of the Lakers as the Rockets scored 30 fourth quarter points. As I've said throughout the regular season and during the Utah series, the Lakers are not consistent enough defensively, which is why I picked the Cavs to beat them in the NBA Finals; the Lakers said all of the right things in the wake of their loss to Boston last year but the Lakers had the same problems this season that they did during that series: defensive lapses, blown leads, lack of focus/concentration. That said, the Lakers did win 65 games this season and there is every reason to believe that they can not only win game two but also win at least one game in Houston to retake home court advantage.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM