Game 3: Early Missed Opportunities Haunt Rockets
But in reality, it proved pivotal in Houston's 108-94 loss, which allowed Los Angeles to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The normally dynamic Lakers missed eight consecutive shots over a three-plus minute stretch. For the half, Rockets outshot the Lakers from the field, 49 percent to 46 percent, and from behind the arc, 57 percent to 40 percent.
They hit 12-of-15 free throws, compared with only 4-of-6 for LA. They outrebounded the Lakers, 24-18, at the break. Yao Ming flipped the script on Pau Gasol, dominating him in the post with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting, compared to Gasol's four on 2-of-7.
In the half, the Rockets dominated the game and were clearly the superior team. Yet because of numerous turnovers (11) and unforced errors, a game the Rockets should have led by double digits turned into a two-point deficit at the half.
Against a great team like the Lakers, those are deadly. The Rockets had their collective hands on the Lakers' throats, but couldn't deliver the necessary blow. That allowed the Lakers to hang around, and in the second half, LA's high-octane offense returned, scoring 58 points to coast to the victory.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after the game that his team "stole" a win, and to the Rockets, that's exactly what it felt like.
"We've got to capitalize when they go on droughts like that," Von Wafer told Hair Balls. "We have to make them pay, and we didn't. We played them good in transition, Kobe [Bryant] went 11-for-28, and we'll take that every night. It's just the turnovers, we have to get the turnovers down."
For the game, the Rockets lost the turnover battle, 17-6, even as LA was missing its floor general, Derek Fisher, due to suspension. It was the second consecutive game where the Rockets had more turnovers than assists (16), and to no coincidence, both were losses.
"That's not usually a winning formula for playoff basketball," Shane Battier said.
Indeed it wasn't. Ron Artest and Aaron Brooks each had careless dribbles poked away, leading to uncontested Laker layups. Artest had two passes sail out of bounds. Every starter in the lineup, save Battier, had at least three turnovers.
In addition to the giveaways, the Rockets missed countless shots within five feet of the basket. Carl Landry blew an uncontested dunk. Yao had three layup or dunk attempts stripped on his way up. Wafer drove to the basket but couldn't finish, shooting 2-of-10.
"It's just the little things," Landry said. "Finishing at the hoop, turnovers, just making better decisions at the offensive end. That's what we can't afford in the playoffs."
The Rockets improved offensively by the fourth quarter, when they scored 32 points. But the mid-game doldrums of a combined 34 points in the second and third periods were too much to overcome, as Bryant and the Lakers had a long-range dagger waiting to quiet each Rockets' push.
The Rockets closed the gap to nine in the final seconds of the third, before Bryant hit a 30-foot three at the buzzer to push it to 12. They cut it to nine again with just over six minutes left, before Trevor Ariza buried a triple from the left corner to again extend it to 12. And when the Rockets made their last charge, pulling within eight with three minutes to go, Bryant buried a three at the buzzer of the shot clock to put it away.
All in all, the Lakers finished 11-of-20 from behind the arc, an incredible turnaround from the group that shot 2-of-18 in a Game 1 loss.
"[The difference] is not hesitating," Bryant said. "That's one of the things I tell the guys all the time. You can't make it if you don't shoot. You just have to let the ball go and trust the hard work you did all season long."
As a result, the Rockets find themselves facing a virtual must-win in Sunday afternoon's Game 4 at Toyota Center. They gave away home-court advantage on Friday night, but it's hardly a backbreaking development. The Lakers weren't going to go quietly, and the Rockets were anything but intimidated by the Staples Center in the opening two games. They can win once more.
But lose Sunday, and fall into a 3-1 deficit heading back to Los Angeles? At that point, they might as well go ahead and start on vacation plans.
"It hurts a lot," Artest said. "That's playoff basketball, things don't go your way sometimes. But the good thing about a seven-game series -- you have the chance to redeem yourself."
That chance, however, appears likely to come without having Yao at full-strength, if he plays at all. Yao hobbled throughout the second half on a left ankle he turned in the second quarter, and said his status for Sunday would be determined by running tests conducted on Saturday. It's the same ankle that caused him to sit out a practice before Game 1.
Additionally, Artest will have his own continuing battle with league officials. He was ejected for a second consecutive game when he fouled Gasol on a dunk attempt in the final minute, and again it was an act that seemingly every other player on the floor -- including Bryant -- said wasn't worthy of an ejection.
But fair or not, it was the second straight game Artest hit the showers early. And on a broader scale, it was the second consecutive golden opportunity the Rockets let slip away.
They can't afford a third, at least not yet.
For a slideshow of pre-game action, click here.
For real-time Rockets talk, visit twitter.com/BenDuBose