Von Wafer was a hero in the first round, scoring 21 points in 27 minutes in Game 2 and sparking the Rockets with an emotional return in the series-clinching Game 6 just two days after suffering a bulging disc in his lower back.
He was supposed to be a hero in the second round, too. It was the ultimate underdog story -- Wafer against the team that drafted him and gave up on him. That's how it played out in the regular season, when Wafer torched the Lakers for 17 points per game on 58 percent shooting -- earning rare praise from Kobe Bryant and leading many analysts -- including yours truly -- to expect big things from Wafer against LA.
"I told [Wafer] during the game how I was proud of the way he's been playing," Bryant said at the teams' January 13 meeting in Houston, according to the LA Times. "He's doing a fine job."
But in Game 1 with the Lakers, the Rockets' top reserve guard went from hero to literally zero. Wafer scored no points in under 8 minutes -- his first scoreless appearance since March 1 -- and struggled so much in the first half that coach Rick Adelman yanked him for veteran Brent Barry, who had long been moved out of the rotation.
Game 2 started positively, when Wafer scored seven points on 3-3 shooting in the first half. He was instrumental in rallying the Rockets from an early 15-point deficit to a brief three-point lead.
In the second half, however, it all came crashing down. Wafer missed a shot, turned the ball over, and struggled defensively, leading Adelman to remove him from the game. What happened next remains largely unknown -- media reports have ranged from Wafer throwing a waterbottle to yelling at Adelman to protest his removal -- but the ugly reality is that Adelman sent him to the dressing room near the beginning of the fourth quarter, and by the eight-minute mark, he had already showered and was ready to head home.
On Thursday, Adelman wouldn't discuss many specifics of the sideline incident but said he had dealt with it and moved on, and that Wafer would be available for tonight's Game 3, which tips at 8:30 p.m. at the Toyota Center.
"He didn't like coming out," Adelman said of Wafer. "He doesn't have to like coming out, but it's his job to accept that.
"I told him, 'Sometimes it has nothing to do with you.' Those two little guards [Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks] were pretty good in the first half, and I got Ron and Yao back in the game. You don't like it, you talk to me later, but you don't do it then."
Adelman also said it wasn't the first time Wafer has confronted him over being removed from a game, a frightening plot to watch going forward.
"We talked about it and this is not a one-time thing," he said. "A couple of things have happened, and, you know, it was not the right time. It's all about the team, and that's what Von and I talked about. It's my job to coach the team and it's his job to play."
If the Rockets are to truly have a chance in the best-of-seven series with the league's best team, they need Wafer back to his usual self. His speed and driving ability were paramount to floor spacing in the Rockets' enormous second quarter in Game 2. And early in the fourth, after he left, the Rockets' offense looked lost and completely unable to drive to the basket.
Perhaps most importantly, when Ron Artest was given a foul and subsequently ejected for putting his throat in the way of a vicious Kobe Bryant elbow, the Rockets didn't have their top backup wing to turn to.
Game, set, match.
"[Wafer] goes to the basket constantly, and he just puts so much pressure on your defense because you're worried about stopping the ball and closing out on the shooters, and that's tough to do," Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge said during the first round. "He changes the game."
The Rockets can survive without Wafer if Artest shoots the way he did in the first two games. Houston is 19-5 when Artest shoots over 50 percent from the floor.
However, reality -- and specifically, the prior series -- tells us that Artest won't stay this hot. He's due for a couple of clunkers, the likes of which will make you pull your hair out on each contested 25-foot three he takes while dribbling (or stumbling, more precisely) to his left. When that happens, the Rockets will need Wafer and his electric offense off the bench to stay within striking distance of the high-octane Lakers.
But it's worth noting that Adelman has never seemed particularly fond of Wafer's overall game. Even when discussing his strengths at various points this season, Adelman has always slipped in words of caution regarding Wafer's lack of defense and mental focus. That's an approach he typically doesn't take with his other players, many of which possess less overall talent.
From Wafer's perspective, this is a monumental series. Not only for revenge, but for his pocketbook. He'll be a free agent this summer, and a big playoff series against the league's most high-profile team would do wonders for his upcoming contract. Likewise, his overall athleticism and skills package might do wonders to help the Rockets' win.
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But before Wafer can worry about those big goals, it appears Adelman will force him to obey one of sports' most simple fundamental rules.
Get along with the coach.
Beginning with tonight's Game 3, we'll see whether that's doable.
For real-time Rockets talk, visit twitter.com/BenDuBose. And check Hair Balls this weekend for detailed recaps of Games 3 and 4 from Toyota Center.