It wasn't as bad a game for Houston as the score indicates. However, that doesn't mean it wasn't ugly, because it was really, really ugly.
Rarely will a team play as lousy as the Rockets played last night and still have a chance to win the game. Even stranger, the opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers, on their home floor no less. The Rockets kept themselves alive with gritty defense, forcing twenty turnovers and collapsing on Kobe Bryant each time he got into the lane. A win -- much less the lead -- was there for the taking, and for the entire contest. Had the offense been anywhere near as timely as the defense, the Rockets would have surely prevailed.
One of the primary reasons why the Rockets have thrived offensively this year is intelligence. They move the ball extremely well and usually find open shots that are comfortable to the shooter, whether it's a corner three from Shane Battier or an elbow/baseline jumper from Luis Scola; these are shots that those two guys specifically practice. The Lakers have seen this squad enough to have pinpointed many of these preferences, and it showed. The Rockets half-court offense was incapable of producing anything.
L.A. turned Houston's first-half offense into a Trevor Ariza Pivot Party, which is never a good thing for the Rockets. Each time Ariza drove towards the block, a Laker defender would simply force him to turn around. With other players, this is only half of the process. With Ariza, you've practically stopped him - if he pivots for more than two seconds, he'll lose his balance. This isn't to say that the Rockets didn't get any open looks; they actually missed quite a bit of open shots. But it was the Lakers' counter-intelligence, as well as their intensity on defense that forced Houston into some uncomfortable situations (and into only shooting seventy-seven times, two fewer than L.A.).
Houston also made some dumb mistakes, and one of them stood out to me the most. With about fifteen seconds left, Aaron Brooks ran the shot clock down to four seconds, drove into the lane, and... passed to Dave Andersen as time expired. If Brooks is going to give himself just enough time to get a shot off himself, then he won't have any time for an alternative. Next time, it would make more sense for Brooks to drive with about seven seconds left, and if the defense jumps him, he will have time to pass it off for a layup. I'd rather take my chances giving the Lakers two seconds to heave a prayer than limit our options offensively.
Oh, and the Rockets couldn't buy a three pointer. In this economy...
We can't ignore the other aspect of Los Angeles' lockdown: their size (they're bigger, they're stronger, they're faster... they have more facial hair!). And this was without Pau Gasol, which is scary. Outside of a few possessions where the Rockets got two or three offensive rebounds, the Lakers dominated the boards. Want to know who led the Rockets in rebounding? Kyle Lowry, with nine. Scola, Hayes, and Landry all combined to haul in only fourteen rebounds. And, in addition to the rebounding factor, Andrew Bynum scared any Rockets out of coming too close into the lane - he only had one blocked shot.
Kobe was visibly off, and while I credit Shane with some fantastic defense (yet again) on Bryant, it was clear that this was not 24's night from the start. Aside from a couple of insane turn-around, blind jump shots, Kobe went largely unnoticed until the fourth quarter.
Can't ignore 17/19/9 from Lamar Odom. You wonder what kind of player he could have been had he instituted this kind of motor every night. His performance usually indicates how things go for his team when the Lakers play the Rockets.
Chase Budinger's ankle looked fine, and while he didn't make a shot, the fact that he was running and jumping without much hesitation was encouraging. The faster he gets back into shape, the more dangerous the Rockets become. Prepare yourselves, world.
It's too bad that we couldn't will ourselves to a victory, whatever that means. Only 33 first-half points, and we're still in the game? Yikes. Tonight, we go to Phoenix, and hopefully come out with a win.