Playoff Recap: Tempers flare in the fourth as Bryant, Lakers defeat Houston 111-98 in Game 2

This was supposed to be about basketball.  It was, after all, a basketball game.  And through three quarters, it wasn't just a normal game; it was back-and-forth, tough-it-out game that featured some wonderful plays.  Storylines were everywhere to be found.  At that point, I had written down the following list of topics to cover in this recap:

  • Andrew Bynum's benching
  • Kobe Bryant's incredible first quarter
  • Ron Artest's continued brilliance on offense
  • Carl Landry's outstanding performance
  • Luis Scola's horrible performance
  • Yao Ming's dead air performance
  • The Rockets' hustle and resilient effort heading into the fourth.
But then the fourth quarter arrived, and each one of those aforementioned subjects quickly faded into the background.  In their place stepped flaring tempers, ejections, dirty plays, and chemistry issues.  It was no longer a basketball game.  The score, the statistics, the drive to win - none of that mattered anymore.  It turned into an episode of Jerry Springer, with each of the players accusing each other of this and that, jawing at each other like maniacs to escalate the situation, and then losing their tempers before being broken up by the referees, who naturally played the role of the security guards.  It would have made for some great TV ratings, I'm sure of that.  But for all of the wrong reasons.  Oh, this could have been quite a special game.  Unfortunately, the Rockets' opponent had a different agenda.

I don't want to talk about this, but you want to read about it.  It's what you want that matters.  You want answers, you want opinions, you want someone to agree with you so you can feel satisfied, and you want someone to disagree with you so you can argue your case.  You want a conviction, a verdict, something to make you feel like the classlessness of this game and the shameful play of these athletes was brought to justice.  But no matter what actions are taken by the front office, and no matter what is written, however truthful or apt it may be, nothing can take away from how awful this game was.  Nothing.  The players decide the games - we can only react.  So I will react as best I can, for your sake, and, admittedly, for mine.

It started with Lamar Odom talking smack to Luis Scola.  And it should have ended right away.  Odom was clearly clinging to Scola's ear during dead balls; the referees should have cleaned it up before it got worse.  Next thing you know, Odom keeps up the jib-jabbing before Scola says a few words back to him.  Then Luke Walton steps in, and Scola doesn't take to it very well.  Three technicals later, we're all back where we started: at a basketball game.  You thought that was the end of it.  It could have been the end.  But it was merely the beginning, thanks to one Derek Fisher.

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There are tough players in this league, and then there are dirty players.  Derek Fisher, a man who garnered so much respect from fans for how he dealt with a family crisis during the playoffs a few years back, can now be labeled as a dirty player.  It only takes on play, and this wasn't just a tiny cheapo.  It was the most disgraceful thing I have ever seen from Fisher, and he deserves every bit of criticism that he will undoubtedly receive.  That, and a nice letter from Stu Jackson.

Fisher decided not to be the better man.  He decided that getting even was important.  And instead of going through a pick in the same manner as every other guard in the NBA, Fisher decided to throw an elbow at Scola's face.  I expect this from a young, immature, fresh-outta-high-school player, but not from an experienced veteran.  Scola could have been knocked out cold.  And yet, Fisher stands there like nothing happened.  I mean, if you're going to start something, then by all means, follow through on it.  Where was the continued trash talk while Scola was lying on the ground?  Where was the final blow?  Surely that is what Fisher was trying to do, wasn't it?  Instead, Fisher stood there and treated the play like it was "tough."  He treated it like it was just some normal playoff reaction, like it was actually going to benefit his team.  He expected applause for the maneuver, he expected to be cheered for it.  That was the look that he had on his face.  It was not an expression of remorse, nor was it an expression of violent hatred.  He looked indifferent to his cheap shot, like it was the proper course of action.  What a lousy performance from someone who I thought to be a good human being.

There is no word I can think of to properly describe Fisher at the moment.  Probably because such a word has yet to be invented.  I'm not going to even throw any cuss words Fisher's way.  He's below all of them.  They don't suffice.  Like I said, justice, in this situation, is unattainable for me.  And it sucks.  Oh, and if you don't think Fisher should have been ejected, leave now.  Get as far away from this blog as possible, because I don't want to hear it.  There are not two sides to this, not by any stretch of the imagination.

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Following Fisher's folly was a Houston hiccup.  Von Wafer suddenly got up off the bench and walked to the locker room.  Later, Craig Sager reported that Wafer had been sent to the showers by Rick Adelman for arguing with him.  All I can say is good riddance - if you're going to have a selfish attitude in an important game, then you don't deserve to be on the floor, regardless of how well you were playing.  I tip my hat to Rick on this one.  He sent Von a message, and we can only hope that Von received it with an open mind.

We had a short break from Springer, as a few minutes of basketball served as a reasonable commercial.  But then Kobe Bryant opened up a can of cheap shots, and instead of dealing with it correctly, Ron Artest, who had played so well up to that point, chose to value a few insults at Bryant over the outcome of the game.  It was at that point that the score lost all meaning.  As Artest walked off the court following his ejection, our hustle and determination left the court as well.

True, Artest's situation was a horrible miss by the referees.  Bryant elbowed him right in the throat, and then of course acted like nothing was wrong.  It should have been an obvious call.  But I'm tired of talking about the refs - nobody needs me to do so.  Ron's decision to put himself over his teammates was a horrible decision.  He could have accepted the foul and moved on, satisfied or unsatisfied.  His maturation had been praised multiple times during the game, and yet, there he was yelling in Bryant's face.  I know what Artest was feeling, but think how his teammates felt when he deserted them down the stretch.  Which is more valuable here?

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We all know Kobe Bryant is annoying.  We know he is a terrible sport.  We know that for every ounce of talent that he has, he lacks the same amount in sportsmanship.  But it is a given - you accept it and move on, no matter how unfair it is.  There is no point in fighting Kobe, because once you do, you're suddenly fighting the NBA as well.  Artest didn't realize this, and it cost his team their final chance at a comeback.

I'm now going to address the basketball issues of tonight's game, and sadly, I'm sure many of you will stop reading here and move on because you don't care anymore.  The sad part is that I wouldn't particularly blame you.  And that goes to show just what a travesty Game 2 proved to be.

Jump for the game analysis...

NBA Playoffs Blog Coverage, Schedule and Scores - SB Nation

Andrew Bynum is the future of the Lakers' post play.  He is talented, strong, dedicated, and above all, a perfect match up for the Rockets.  Phil Jackson recognized this, and made perhaps the smartest decision of this postseason by taking Bynum away from Yao and pairing him with the second team.  This move rotated Pau Gasol onto Yao and Lamar Odom onto Scola.  

Two things immediately came into play with this bold move.  For one, Gasol is very quick for his size, and is able to make a play on nearly every post-entry pass to Yao, assuming he hasn't already fronted him first.  Also, by putting Gasol and Odom in together, the Lakers may lose an inch or two of size, but in terms of rebounding, they actually gain ground.  Gasol and Odom are two of the best offensive rebounders in the league, and they have already combined for an astounding nineteen offensive rebounds through two games.  Secondly, Odom, like LaMarcus Aldridge, is a much harder match up for Luis Scola.  Odom's athleticism and ability to shoot from the outside is a decisive advantage in the Lakers' favor.  Jackson's gamble proved to be hardly that, as Bynum's absence from the game actually benefitted the Lakers.

However, it wasn't the Bynum switch that got the Lakers off to a roaring start.  Instead, it was the first quarter takeover by Kobe Bryant, who hit some incredibly difficult shots over Shane Battier.  He finished the first with fifteen points and only missed a few shots.  There wasn't much Battier could do, as he was constantly in Bryant's face.  Kobe just got hot.  Every shot that didn't fall for the Lakers in Game 1 finally rang true in the first quarter of Game 2.  It was as if the basketball gods had made up for their previous inexcusable mistakes.  Fisher also got off to a good start, hitting his first few shots.  The Lakers finished the first quarter on a roll and looked to thoroughly blow out the Rockets before halftime.

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But then something unexpected happened.  Carl Landry, normally a quick burst of energy off the bench, took over.  He absolutely took the game over.  Every loose ball on the rim suddenly became Landry's.  Every foul call on the Lakers was following a Landry put-back attempt.  Every time the Lakers scored, the Rockets countered with a layup or some free throws, and each time I looked up to see who it was from, I kept seeing Carl Landry confidently running down the court., fresh off of another edit to his stat sheet.  The spark that he sent through our team carried over to our defense, as the Lakers finally stopped making every single shot that they took.  We took advantage of L.A's temporary mortality and stormed back to take the lead.  It was all because of Landry. Ron Artest may have had a fantastic first half, but the comeback was Landry's to claim.  Carl finished the game with a playoff career high 21 points and ten rebounds, along with 13 free throw attempts.  I don't care if he missed six of them - he was a warrior in the paint, and thus gets a pass.

However, somewhere lost in all of this unexpected glory was the fact that Yao Ming only took one shot in the first half.  It speaks volumes about the importance of Landry's stellar performance, but also brings up a major issue.  As the game progressed, it seemed like Yao Ming's absence was actually a good thing.  When he was in the game, our offense stalled.  When he was out, our offense picked back up.  It was as simple as that.  This concerns me, because Carl Landry isn't going to be this phenomenal every night.  We must find a way to not just incorporate Yao, but make him the focal point of our offense.

I hated Luis Scola's performance tonight.  Hated, hated, hated it.  He didn't deserve to be on the same court with the other Rockets out there.  He didn't deserve to be in the game in place of Landry.  Where Landry was aggressive in the paint, Scola was hesitant and apprehensive (whether he dunks or not isn't relevant, by the way).   Where Landry attacked every rebound, Scola waited for the ball to come to him, and was thus beaten.  Where Landry helped in the Rockets, Scola hurt them.  I was looking for an improvement from Scola after his decent Game 1 performance, but this was a step back.  I'm not convinced that he can keep up with anyone aside from Gasol out there.  Bynum's benching may have affect Scola as much as it affected Yao.

It was unfortunate that Chuck Hayes was whistled for some petty fouls, because he played some great defense while he was in the game.  And with Yao sitting on the bench, Hayes played 21 minutes.  Though I am all for Chuck getting in the game, we can't afford to have him play this much - it is too big of a blow to our offense.  To be clear, I love what Hayes has done in these first two games, but we need to see more Yao.  Unless of course, Chuck goes to the free throw line.  I'll sacrifice two points to see some Chuckwagon free throws.

We desperately need to take better care of the ball.  Nineteen turnovers is absurd, regardless of how tenacious the Laker defense is.  For the Rockets to have three less assists than turnovers is worrisome.  The turnovers led to 21 points for the Lakers, and contributed to many of their nineteen fast break points (nineteen must be tonight's lucky number or something).  There was one point in the game where we could have tried to get the ball down to Yao, as Bynum was guarding him.  But instead, Lowry, Brooks, and Artest all tried to dribble through three defenders and turned the ball over.  That was as painful a period to watch as any, which is saying a lot.

As for the foul disparity, it was expected.  My disappointment with the officials was not in the number of fouls called per team, but instead in how they handled the warning signs leading up to the temper tantrums.  Game 3 will surely be filled with whistles right from the start.

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In all, I thought that the Rockets gave themselves a great chance to win, but ultimately let it slip away in the flurry of technical fouls and ejections.  Had we kept our heads among the chippiness, we could have made a run to win.  Artest could have hit some big shots down the stretch, and we could have stolen a second game on the road.  But we didn't do any of those things, and we lost as a result.  But this team has no reason to hang their heads - we played the best team in the Western Conference as well as we could have on the road, and the funny thing is that we still have many areas to improve upon.  With the series tied 1-1, Rockets fans should be confident.  Nobody expected us to put up a fight, but we've done even more than that.  Let's hope that these next few games will be more about basketball and less about who can piss everyone off.  I know the Rockets will be classy.  Tough to say the same thing for the Lakers. 

But it would be nice to at least see some improvement.

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