The Rockets finally got the first-round monkey off their backs last week, so what did the NBA give them as a reward? Only a second-round date with the prohibitive title favorite Lakers, beginning tonight at 9:30 in Los Angeles.
It's a terrifying matchup by nearly every quantifiable method. The Rockets lost all four games to the Lakers in the regular season. Ron Artest made headlines with his constant trash talk with Kobe Bryant, but the talking was the only true competition. Bryant torched the Rockets with 28.3 points per contest on a blistering 53 percent from the field, while Artest shot a brutal 32.6 percent and averaged 13.3 points.
Shane Battier wasn't much better, shooting 36.8 percent and scoring seven points. Perhaps more concerning is that the Lakers' most vulnerable spot -- Derek Fisher at point guard -- is the Rockets' weakest position as well, and something they weren't able to take advantage of. Aaron Brooks scored 10 per game on 38.5 percent shooting, while Kyle Lowry chipped in with four points on an ice-cold 26.1 percent from the field.
"The good news is that the bandwagon is clear," Battier told Hair Balls. "I don't think that we'll have to worry about overconfidence or that we'll have people telling us that it will be an easy series. They're playing as well as anyone in the league right now."
Yao Ming was efficient against LA, shooting 56 percent, but LA kept him under 16 points behind a swarming defense that limited his shots and didn't foul. Yao averaged just 3.3 free throws against LA, his second-fewest against any team. And two of those games came without the defensive presence of Andrew Bynum.
So, what happened? In short, it wasn't the dynamic Lakers offense, led by one of the greatest players of all time as well as outstanding complementary parts like Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, that did the most damage. It was the defense that was suffocating, holding Houston to 82 and 81 points in the two games in Los Angeles.
The Lakers didn't front Yao the way Portland did. Instead, they routinely sent a guard (often Kobe) from the weak side to double Yao on the baseline. This led to numerous strips because of poor recognition from Yao and poor communication from his teammates.
Moreover, even when Yao saw it coming, he struggled to find the open man. As a team, the Lakers are so long that they close off passing lanes and make tremendously quick defensive rotations. This meant that even when Yao felt the double-team and kicked it out, shooters like Artest and Battier weren't able to get shots in rhythm, and that led to poor percentages.
But despite those problems, the final three Rockets-Lakers games were somehow there for the taking in the closing minutes. In the January 13 game at Toyota Center, the Rockets led in the final minute. In the March 11 game in Houston, the Rockets were tied with 2:26 to go. In the April 3 game in LA when the Rockets scored only 81 points, the Rockets were within one in the fourth quarter and down only five with 4:41 to play.
As a result, the Rockets aren't merely satisfied to be here.
"I'm not happy just getting out of the first round," Artest said. "That's just not how it goes here. That's not LA's goal, that's not Boston's goal, that is not Cleveland's goal and it's not our goal."
On offense, it started in those games with former Laker Von Wafer, who scored 17 a game on 58.3 percent shooting. It was also Luis Scola, who made LA pay for its sagging defense against Yao with 12.3 points on 62.5 percent shooting. The same principle also benefited Carl Landry, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds on a smoking 64.3 percent from the field.
All in all, the components to offensive success were speed and movement off the ball, making the Lakers pay for their overaggressive, trapping defense.
But another key came defensively, where the Rockets improved throughout the season. They gave up 111 to LA in November, but that went down to 105, 102, and then 93 in subsequent meetings -- quite an effort against a juggernaut that averaged nearly 107 a game.
"We've had some issues with them this year, but we're going to go in there and try to muck it up and try to make it a knuckleball-spitball game, and try to win ugly," Battier said.
Kobe got his points, but the Rockets held Gasol and Odom each to about 48 percent shooting, well under their averages. The Rockets' ability to guard Kobe without double-teaming (a mix of Battier and Artest) usually gives them a better shot at containing the LA role players.
Also, the Rockets are used to the challenge due to a Portland team that played a comparable style. A big issue with the Lakers is the Gasol matchup -- an incredibly lanky big man with the height to score inside and cause defensive problems but also with a jumper that extends to 20 feet. But if there's a player in the league comparable to Gasol, it's Lamarcus Aldridge. And as great as Kobe is, it's hard to play any better than Brandon Roy did in the first round.
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In the end, it's hard to see the Rockets having the perimeter closer, unless Artest remains red-hot like in Game 6, to win the late-series game in LA that will probably be necessary to advance. However, there's reason to be optimistic that Houston can compete. The Lakers have held Artest, Yao and Battier all under typical outputs, and yet the Rockets still had the final three games (all without Tracy McGrady) go down to the wire.
It says here that at least two of those playoff veterans will build off the first-round momentum and step up with quality offensive performances, making it a compelling series.
Prediction: Lakers in seven (Remember, Ben correctly picked Rockets in six in the first round.)
For real-time Rockets talk, go to twitter.com/BenDuBose