Thirty-seven million of the Rockets' approximately $70 million payroll sits on the bench in luxury suits instead of basketball uniforms.
With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady sidelined, the Rockets counter the Lakers' top scoring option -- only one of the best players ever, Kobe Bryant -- with the erratic Ron Artest and Aaron Brooks. When the Lakers walk supremely-talented seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to mid-court, the Rockets match up with Chuck Hayes, a 6-foot-6 scrapper with little to no offense. Like the cities themselves, Houston brings the blue-collar mindset; Los Angeles the white. It's a mismatch in virtually every category -- except heart.
And because of that, the Rockets have stunningly pushed the No. 1-seeded Lakers to the brink of elimination.
Led by 26 points from Brooks -- who nailed big shot after big shot -- along with inspiring team defense and energy from the outset, the Rockets cruised to a 95-80 win on Thursday night at Toyota Center, tying the series at three games apiece and setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday in Los Angeles.
"We may not have the most talented team, but there's not a team with more heart in this entire league," Shane Battier told Hair Balls. We've shown it again and again and again.
"When no one gives you a chance to win, and you go out and put together a great effort, those are the moments and the signature times that you remember in your career. I won't ever forget this one, that's for sure."
The question all day was how the undermanned Rockets would respond from the Lakers supposedly seizing momentum with a 40-point romp in Game 5. Many in the media effectively wrote eulogies for the Rockets' season.
But that didn't matter to those in the Rockets' locker room, and they answered in Game 6 just as they did in Game 4 -- by annihilating the Lakers with an opening burst, rushing out to a 21-3 lead. Luis Scola, who finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, had more points (14) in the first quarter than he had in any previous game the entire series.
"Luis [Scola] set the tone tonight," Battier said. "He's played in a lot of big games in his career, more than most people know. He's an unbelievable player."
And when the Lakers terrified Rockets fans everywhere by closing a 16-point halftime lead to two midway through the third, Brooks decided it was his turn to step up, collapsing the LA defense time after time and helping to extend the lead to a comfortable nine by the end of the period.
"[Brooks] was unbelievable down the stretch," coach Rick Adelman said. "We put the ball in his hands, told him to make good decisions and be aggressive."
Few analysts, with limited exceptions such as yours truly, even projected the Rockets to last until Game 7 before the series, and that was with a healthy Yao. But the Rockets are there, with two of the three wins shockingly coming without Yao and after the team had long been written off. Instead of letting the adverse circumstances bring them down, the Rockets seem to relish the challenge, fighting back each and every time.
"The last two days, all I've heard is we weren't going back to LA," Adelman said. "The guys in our locker room didn't believe that. This team has so much heart. They don't care what people say. When Yao went down, no one blinked an eye. We're just playing, playing to see how far we can take us. This is a special team."
The sold-out crowd of 18,501 at Toyota Center appears to enjoy the underdog role as well. Much like Game 4, the adoring crowd was involved from the get-go, roaring their approval while making things hostile for the Lakers, including the always-amusing "Kobe sucks!" chants. And if this was the last home game of the year, the fans certainly showed the Rockets their appreciation, staying late to shower them with a standing ovation for a season that is already unforgettable, regardless of how Game 7 turns out.
"I'm sure a lot of people had us written off, but if you did that then you really haven't been watching basketball for the past month because we're underdogs and we surprise people," Chuck Hayes said. "People least expect it, but somehow we get the job done."
The Rockets entered Thursday with their backs against the wall, counted out by the world after a 40-point drubbing in Game 5. But as they did in Sunday's Game 4, just 18 hours after learning of Yao Ming's season-ending injury, they completely flipped the script and left the Lakers reeling.
And now the Lakers have no more room for error. This time, the Rockets sit only 48 minutes from one of the greatest upsets in sports history and potentially one of the biggest wins the city of Houston has ever seen.
On the surface, it still appears daunting. The Rockets have lost by double figures in their last two trips to Staples Center, including, of course, by 40 the other night. They're clearly at an enormous talent disadvantage and an overwhelming underdog.
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Then again, given this group's history, overcoming the odds shouldn't come as a surprise at all.
"Here we are, the team that was supposed to be too small, too slow, too whatever," Battier said. "And we're going back for a Game 7. It's a tournament situation, one game. We don't have to beat them in a series, just have to beat them once.
"We have nothing to lose. No one thought we'd be here. We're just going to take our shots, play loose, play with energy and we'll take our chances from there."
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