Playoff Recap: Yao returns to lead Rockets to 100-92 victory over Lakers in Game 1

Tonight was all about getting banged up.  Yao Ming hurt his knee, Shane Battier cut his eye, and I nearly suffered a heart attack while watching The Great Wall come crashing to the ground.  And then after all of that, I probably strained my arm after some intense, European-techno-rave fist pumping following each and every made free throw of ours.  But no matter; it was all worth it for the win, a win that we absolutely had to have.  And not because it was pivotal that we take a game in Los Angeles, but because the Lakers weren't on their game at all.  Luckily, we took advantage of that. 

Normally, the phrase "that's the way the ball bounces" refers to a single crucial play.  However, for the Lakers, the ball kept bouncing out of their favor.  And then it bounced some more, and more, and more, until they finally ran out of time for a comeback.  It's a good thing that the Rockets won this game, because we aren't going to see the Lakers play any worse than they did.

The first three quarters went as planned.  The Rockets played hard, had a lead, and Kobe had yet to really bring down the house.  It was the same song that had been sung in the four regular season match ups between Houston and L.A.  But in each of those contests, the Lakers had blown the Rockets out of the water in the fourth behind a thunderous wave of scoring from Bryant.  Nobody expected tonight to be any different. 

We all waited for it.  Our fate was certain.  Kobe was bound to erupt at any moment and take over.  He was going to dribble up the court and find Pau Gasol.  Then he was going to rise up behind the Spaniard and knock down a three like it was practice.  And then, as usual, he was going to jog back down the court with that casual slouch in his shoulders, like it was all a joke.  Rockets fans had seen it too often.  So we waited.  And waited.  But then something strange happened. 

Nothing went according to plan:

9:30 - Kobe Bryant misses 16-foot two point shot

7:39 - Kobe Bryant misses 22-foot jumper

6:01 - Kobe Bryant misses 16-foot jumper

Huh?

4:16 - Kobe Bryant misses 18-foot jumper

2:01 - Kobe Bryant misses 28-foot three point jumper

I'm not saying that Kobe was supposed to hit all of those shots.  And I'm not saying that even if he had hit a few of them, the Lakers would have won.  But ladies and gents, we caught one hell of a break.  You can thank Mr. Battier for that.

There's nothing new for me to say about Shane's defense on Kobe, since some other dude already wrote his own article about it.  So I'll be brief in saying that it was fantastic.  If there is one thing that differs from the way that Shane guards Kobe and the way that every other defender in the league guards Kobe, it is in the amount of separation that Bryant can get on his jump shots.  Battier knows when Bryant is going to shoot.  I don't know how, but it sure looks that way.  Every time Kobe pulls up, he's got five fingers in his eyes. 

Through all of the statistical analysis that Battier does before every game, he has learned how to pinpoint Kobe's favorite places and times to pull up and shoot.  Bryant's offensive gameplan is the most refined and crafted in the NBA, and the only way to minimize its effectiveness to counter it with a defensive gameplan that is just as carefully crafted.  Battier can do this when many other defenders can not.  His ability to force Kobe take the most uncomfortable shots possible is uncanny, and even more impressive is his ability to time his close outs on the jump shot.  32 points from Kobe may look like poor defense, but when it comes on 31 shots, Shane is the clear-cut winner.

Moving on -- can someone find me a harder competitor than Yao Ming?  He's simply incredible.  For a 7'6 guy to take a blow to the knee and then fight it off, return to the game, and score ten points in the final quarter is remarkable.  You saw the look on his face when he was down on the ground: he was in some serious pain.  I got out of my chair and sat on the floor and tried not to pull my hair out just watching it.  I thought he was done.  But halfway towards the locker room, Yao decided that it didn't hurt quite bad enough.  If it could move, then he could play.  Credit Keith Jones with actually listening to the big man as well.  Instead of abusing his trainer privileges and sending Yao to the locker room, Jones understood the velocity of the situation and came up with a few quick excercises for Yao to do in order to test out the knee.  Shanghai's Finest passed the test, and Jones walked him back out onto the floor.  I don't think I've ever had such an immediate change in emotions.  Well, besides that Brandon Roy shot back in November.  But is his team still in the playoffs?  Didn't think so.

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But enough about courage and determination and all of that Chris Connelly garbage; let's talk about the game itself.

For the Rockets, the fact that Andrew Bynum is in uniform is a blessing.  Had Yao been matched up with Pau Gasol, not only would he have struggled to keep up with Pau, as we saw many times during post entry pass attempts, but he would have also likely been doubled the same way that Portland doubled him.  However, with Bynum healthy and on the court, the Lakers decided to trust their prized center and leave him alone with Yao.  There are many reasons why this is not very smart, but I will save you time and address the one that matters the most.

The key to stopping Yao is preventing him from getting the ball.  Sounds simple enough, and Portland made it look simple in Round 1.  But while most "analysts" focus on the actual post moves between Yao and his opponents, it is the fight for post position that makes all of the difference.  If Yao can catch an entry pass one-on-one on the block for the entire game, you can bank on him scoring at least 25-30 points.  If he can't get the ball, or if he is forced to catch it a good five to ten feet from the block, he's going to have some difficulty scoring.  9-17 from the field doesn't look pretty for a post player, but for the Rockets, getting Yao 17 shots is a job well done.  Throw in ten free throw attempts ten made free throws and you've given yourself the very best chance possible to win.

Not to be overlooked, Ron Artest was productive on offense for a second straight game.  He was hot from the very start, and when he banked in that three pointer, you knew things were going well for him.  I would especially like to compliment Ron on his performance tonight for only taking fifteen shots.  Remember last time Artest got off to a scorching start?  Game 2 in Portland.  After making his first few shots in that game, he proceeded to go 1-8 from the three point line and bascially shot us out of the game.  The following morning, Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don't Lie pointed out that sometimes, a great start from Ron can be a bad thing.  We saw the same thing from Rafer Alston when he was in a Rockets uniform; once he makes the first few shots, he suddenly thinks he can make every shot.  Then the shot selection turns sour and you've got yourself a piss poor end to what could have been a great night.  But against the Lakers, Artest remained in check on offense and took the shots that were availalbe to him.  He shot 8 of 15 from the field for 21 points, a perfect compliment to Yao and to the rest of the team.  He wasn't kidding about that Von Hawk, either.

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Aaron Brooks had a spectacular game against Derek Fisher.  It may sound like a cop-out to just say that Aaron has an advantage because he is faster, but we all saw how easy it was for him to get in the lane.  He blew by Fisher at will, and only once was his layup attempt swatted into the stands. Normally it's much worse.  Look for the Lakers to use Jordan Farmar and Sheldon Brown quite a bit more than they wanted to.  Fisher's 3-10 performance didn't exactly help his case for more playing time either.  Honestly, seeing him go 0 for 4 from the three point line was shocking.  I did have a problem with some of Brooks' passes throughout the game, and luckily, we were able to out-hustle the Lakers and recover a few of his mistakes.  But we may not be so fortunate in Game 2.  Brooks must be more careful with the ball.

I'm not really sure what to make of Luis Scola's performance.  The stat sheet makes it look pretty decent, but I found myself getting angry with Scola far more often than usual.  Maybe it was because he wasn't hitting wide-open jumpers, or maybe it was because he made some really lazy passes that ticked me off and could have been stolen.  Perhaps I was too hard on him, but it just seemed like he was out of it.  I do believe in Scola though, and I expect him to make himself more prominent on offense in Game 2.

Aside from Yao, Battier, and Artest, my two favorite players to watch in this game were Kyle Lowry and Carl Landry.  They outmuscled people for loose balls, and to put it in simpler terms, they were the garbage men.  They found the trash, picked it up, and put it in the basket.  Lowry was especially impressive in the fourth quarter, as he was composed and smart with the basketball.  Landry was bruiser inside, and did a great job finishing down low, something that he struggled with in Game 6 against Portland.

Despite how well the Rockets played tonight, and despite how obvious this seems, I must stress that the Lakers were not themselves.  They shot 2-18 from the three point line, 12-19 from the free throw line, and Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher went 0-8 from three, many of which were literally wide-open attempts.  That won't happen again.  Neither will our enormous foul advantage (26-14).  I didn't notice a whole lot of bad calls in our favor, but you just know that the foul disparity will not be that great in Game 2.  If anything, we can expect the Lakers to start getting some calls that they didn't get in this game; Kobe isn't going to only take five free throws again.

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We also can not turn the ball over 16 times again.  It killed us in the Portland series, and it will do the same against the Lakers.  Lazy passes have plagued us all postseason.  We look up, assume the defender won't make a play on the ball, and lightly float it to our teammates.  That isn't going to fly.  We can't afford to have the same amount of assists as turnovers again.

Expectations for Game 2 will be interesting - will we be pressured to win or not?  Tonight was quite a shocker, whether we were confident or not.  The difference between this series and the first round was that our home court advantage on Portland was significant.  They were not going to beat us at home, and thus, we could afford a Game 2 loss and still be comfortable.  If this series goes back to Houston tied at 1-1, it will be far more dangerous to us than the 1-1 record in the Portland series was.  It will be asking a lot of this Rockets team to win two games in a row in Los Angeles, and I doubt anyone will pick them to do so, but if we were somehow able to pull it out, it would be a monumental help to our chances of...(gulp)....winning the se--.

Actually, I'm not going to say it yet.  It's way too damn early.  We'll take it one game at a time.

Go Rockets!

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