Second Round Preview: Lakers Defense May Pose Biggest Threat To Rockets
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
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
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.
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
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