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.
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.
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.
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.