Using their first round victory over Portland as momentum, the Houston Rockets continued their winning ways by downing the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, 100-92, to take a 1-0 lead in the Second Round of the NBA Playoffs. Houston led practically wire-to-wire and withstood the Lakers come back attempts each time. Yao Ming,(28 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocked shots), led the Rockets followed by Ron Artest, (21 points, 7 assists), and Aaron Brooks, (19 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds), but it was Houston’s stifling defense that generated the victory. Shane Battier and Artest took turns guarding Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Rockets dared the Lakers to beat them from outside. Los Angeles shot 44.3% for the game and a dismal 2-18 from distance for 11%. Kobe led the Lakers in scoring (32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) but shot only 14-31 and 1-7 from beyond the arc. Bryant got little help from Pau Gasol, (14 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals), and Lamar Odom, (9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists). Averaging a tick under 65 points in their series with Utah, the big three for the Lakers shot a combined 24-53 and 6-13 from the free throw line.
If the Lakers were concerned with rust from their weeklong layoff, it showed glaringly on the defensive end. The quicker, Rockets guards ran circles around the Lakers. And when their guards were not penetrating for easy lay-ups, Houston’s post game, anchored by Yao, destroyed the Lakers. The Rockets looked sharper throughout and immediately put the Lakers on their heels. Andrew Bynum, (10 points, 3 rebounds), picked up two early fouls in the first quarter and never got the opportunity to get untracked. Odom simply didn’t have it tonight, settling for jump shots and not attacking the rim as he did against the Jazz. But despite their rocky start, the Lakers only trailed by three at halftime, 43-40. The Lakers came out in the 3rd quarter intent on getting their offense going. Kobe heated up, scoring 13 points in the period. But each time the Lakers drew close, Houston went out on a run of their own. Trailing by eight points with 3:43 left in the period, the Lakers closed the gap back down to three points on a Jordan Farmar trey from the corner to end the third stanza.
The Lakers took the lead at 77-76 in the 4th quarter on a pair of Shannon Brown free throws with 8:18 left to play. But Houston responded with 9-0 run that pushed the lead back up to eight points. The Lakers played catch-up the rest of the way, and Houston converted enough free throws to close out the win. The Rockets shot 47.9% for the game and converted 25-29 free throws for 86.2%. The Lakers managed to outrebound the Rockets, 39-35, and committed only 13 turnovers. But they only connected on 12-19 free throw attempts for a putrid 63.2%. Phil Jackson noted that even though the Rockets prevailed, he was not overly concerned despite the bad start to the series. “I don’t know if we could play much worse, quite honestly.” Bryant also added,”We played really bad, shot the ball horrendously from the 3-point line. A lot of that was desperation at the end, but still, we missed a lot. We shot horribly from the free throw line.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center where the Lakers hope to rebound from their poor performance. Instead of allowing the Rockets to dictate the pace and style of play, the Lakers need to press the issue and force Houston to play their style of basketball. Houston appeared stronger and tougher in their interior defense. And with Battier and Artest hounding Kobe all game long, the Lakers settled for perimeter shots instead of attacking the basket. Both Pau and Lamar had subpar games and I look for both of them to have bounceback performances in Game 2. The bench follows the lead of Odom, and typically when he plays bad, so does the Bench Mob. Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell and Shannon Brown all scored only 2 points apiece. Farmar’s brief stint in the 3rd quarter was all the action he saw. Trevor Ariza, (10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals), and Derek Fisher, (8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists), also struggled, unable to sustain any type of offensive rhythm or defensive presence.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
With Game 1 in the bag for the Houston Rockets, all I could think of was for however poorly we played, we still had a chance to pull this one out. The Lakers looked a step slower and Houston’s interior defense really showed as the normally unflappable Kobe Bryant simply could not find the opening gaps to attack. Can the Rockets muster another grind it out win on Wednesday with their version of ugly basketball? Can the Lakers regroup and exploit Houston’s weak bench and keep Bynum on the floor for longer than 2 minute stints? The consensus is a resounding, yes. But in order to do so, they must come to realize that the Rockets will not simply roll over for them. They need to punish them under the basket, both on their offensive sets and in their defensive assignments. Force the Rockets to beat them from outside. The game plan that Rick Adelman’s squad implemented must be used against them as well. By pushing Yao out further, we force him to be a passer, which is clearly not his strength. Brooks is too quick for Fisher or Brown to contain, and if Phil decides against using Farmar in this situation, the Lakers need to lay off of him and turn him into a jump shooter.
If the Rockets can shoot 47.9% again by nailing jumpers, then they deserve to win. But allowing them to penetrate at will and go in for easy buckets cannot be allowed. I don’t see the Lakers shooting as dismally as they did tonight in Game 2. And I surely don’t see both Pau and Lamar struggling to this magnitude again. The Lakers will review the game tapes and make their adjustments in their defensive executions. Help will come quicker on the pick and roll, where the Lakers length should extend the Rocket guards further out. Aaron Brooks was the difference maker in tonight’s win for the Rockets, but his size should be used against him. Remember how Magic used to punish smaller guards that tried to defend him? Make Brooks a defensive liability by posting him up. Pull Yao out of the key and allow our cutters to flash to the middle making Luis Scola the solitary defender in the paint. And please, please, make some free throws.