The opening to the Rockets' player introductions sounded as unlikely and frightening as the task of defeating the vaunted Lakers without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Somehow, "a 6-foot-6 center out of Kentucky" didn't deliver the same punch and energy as the booming "7-foot-6 center from China" usually does at the intro's finish.
But Chuck Hayes has never worried about outside expectations. He's always been told he's too short and too physically limited to be a regular NBA player, yet he routinely delivers sparkling defensive performances when called upon.
To that end, Sunday's Game 4 was no exception. Hayes stepped into the middle to replace the injured Yao and led a suffocating defensive performance by the Rockets, sealing off the interior as the Rockets romped to a stunning 99-87 win that wasn't anywhere near as close as the score indicated. That ties the best-of-seven, second-round series at two games apiece, setting up a crucial Game 5 on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
"Hands down, [Hayes] is the best post defender I've ever played against in my life," forward Carl Landry told Hair Balls. "No one has ever come close to guarding me, straight up, like Chuck.
"He's amazing. He didn't play most of this season, and it's just crazy how he stays ready, physically and mentally, and comes out and plays 35 minutes and does a great job."
For all of Yao's strengths, Yao had become a defensive liability in Games 2 and 3 against Pau Gasol. When the Lakers went small, playing Gasol at center and Lamar Odom at power forward, Yao had no answer. He was far too slow-footed to contain Gasol in transition or off the dribble, which either put Yao in foul trouble, left Gasol with uncontested mid-range jumpers, or forced other Rockets to help, which left wide-open three-point shooters.
But Hayes was able to stymie Gasol largely by himself, making Gasol a non-factor until Gasol added 18 meaningless points after the game had long been decided. More importantly, Hayes prevented the Rockets from being burned in transition as well as having to help off the shooters. That proved crucial, as the Lakers fell from 11-of-20 behind the arc in Game 3 to 4-of-12 in the first three quarters of Game 4.
"I don't think they were expecting us to be as energetic and active as we were," Hayes said. "I think they were expecting us to come out and kind of mope, since Yao is out. Injuries have just been a part of this team since I've been here. Guys step up."
With Aaron Brooks scoring a career-high 34 points and Shane Battier adding 23 points on five three-pointers, the fact that Hayes only scored two points was inconsequential. His nine rebounds, four steals, two assists and one block were paramount, along with impeccable post defense and rotation ability. Odom, who burned the Rockets in Game 3, scored only two points on 1-of-4 shooting before leaving with back spasms.
"Chuck is an amazing defender," Battier said. "If you focus on what he does, it might not look like much, but he's incredible. He's a strong sun of a gun. He has amazing feet and plays the post so smart. He really is a warrior."
The question for the Rockets is whether they can find enough perimeter offense to continue to make up for Yao's offensive presence. If they can, there's little doubt that Hayes -- even at a full foot shorter -- makes them a better defensive team. It's particularly evident against the athletic Lakers, a sentiment shared by former coach Jeff Van Gundy during the game.
But for Hayes, it's more than merely defensive talent. It's also a superb understanding of the game. With two minutes left and the Rockets holding a 92-79 lead, Hayes grabbed an offensive rebound after a missed three and had a mostly-open path to the basket for a layup. But instead of forcing the issue and potentially adding points for himself, he instinctively threw it back to the top to allow the Rockets to burn more clock. It was the epitome of Hayes' game, just as it was two weeks ago when he came off the bench to draw the game-winning charge in Game 4 against Portland -- team-first.
"We had complete confidence in Chuck," coach Rick Adelman said. "You see that time after time."
The mood inside the locker room was a stark contrast from the public reaction to the late Saturday announcement of Yao's season-ending injury, when it seemed as though the entire city of Houston simultaneously deflated. The raucous pregame crowds that had surrounded Toyota Center before every playoff game were noticeably absent. Hundreds of seats around the arena were empty at tip-off. Analysts discussed a Lakers-Nuggets meeting in the Western Conference Finals as inevitable.
"I think everyone but us got the memo that we weren't supposed to show up at this game, without Yao," Battier joked. Instead, the Rockets -- and Yao -- appeared calm all day, and the game was the continuation of a trend of defining moments for Houston coming directly on the heels of adversity.
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After McGrady played his last game of the season on Feb. 9, the Rockets won six in a row, eight of nine and 11 of 13. When the Rockets collapsed on the final day of the regular season in Dallas, blowing the likely No. 2 playoff seed and home-court advantage in the first round, they annihilated a red-hot Portland team by 27 in Game 1 at the Rose Garden.
And only about 18 hours after hearing the potentially-devastating news of Yao's broken left foot, the Rockets made an enormous statement Sunday that this season is far from over.
"We've played without Yao many times before," Landry said. "He hasn't been healthy for an entire season for a long, long time. Most of the guys in this locker room are used to playing without him and we've been successful without him. That's what we intend to continue to do."
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