Lakers/Rockets Series Preview
Breaking the Law?
by Myles Brown
There’s something to be said for the confidence Houston must be operating with after finally escaping the first round, but it may also be quelled at the sight of a team they haven’t beaten all year. Therein lies the difference between the NBA Playoffs and a post season of any other league or sport. Unlike the NFL or the NCAA, the victor must emerge from a series and not a single matchup, otherwise the results could always be deemed a fluke. Unlike MLB or the NHL, scoring is at a premium, so there are rarely game or series changing oddities. The thrill of the now classic Bulls v. Celtics series and even the momentary excitement surrounding the Heat and Hawks Game 7 was the anticipation in knowing that much like the Final Four or the Superbowl, anything could happen. But alas, it didn’t. Veteran teams and those with homecourt advantage generally win and with good reason….
In the words of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, “Il potere logora chi non ce l’ha”
“Power wears out those who don’t have it.”
So I expect the Rockets to ride their emotional high and put forth a valiant effort in this series, but ultimately they’ll find that no one is above the law. One either uses it to their advantage or is crushed by it.
KEEP OTHERS IN SUSPENDED TERROR: CULTIVATE AN AIR OF UNPREDICTABILITY
Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.
The marquee matchup of this series is unquestionably Kobe Bryant v. the two headed monster of Shane Battier and Ron Artest. Despite any claims to the contrary, Bryant seemed intent on mocking the effectiveness of Daryl Morey’s strategies, alternately embarrassing both of his determined defenders. While many may look forward to more jawing between Kobe and Artest, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kobe the Facilitator make an early appearance in this series. Then again, perhaps he’d expect them to expect that and he’ll attack early. What’s certain is that the way for Bryant to maintain control of this series is to force a reaction from Houston and respond accordingly. He’s an efficient enough jump shooter that he needs to be watched for pull ups off of drives and in transition, yet still strong and quick enough to find his way to the basket. Bryant doesn’t have to score 40, or even 30 every night to be a threat, it’s when and where he scores that can put Houston on their heels defensively.
Conversely, the unpredictability of Ron Artest could be a problem for the Rockets. He’s certainly a dependable defender, but his offensive game is erratic and of questionable efficiency at best. Artest is broad and strong enough to bully his way to the rim with relative ease, yet he’s equally enamored with hoisting ill advised three pointers. His headstrong attitude isn’t necessarily indicative of selfishness, but perhaps of delusion, which wouldn’t be the first time Artest was accused of such. His scoring will be vital to any hopes of success for Houston, but if he can’t balance his own desires with the needs of his teammates, an offensively limited squad may become completely impotent.
MAKE OTHER PEOPLE COME TO YOU-USE BAIT IF NECESSARY
When you force the other person to act, you are the one in control. It is always better to make your opponent come to you, abandoning his own plans in the process. Lure him with fabulous gains-then attack. You hold the cards.
Just as Kobe Bryant will be expected to be both facilitator and finisher, Yao Ming will have to do the same. Offensively speaking, Yao is the best center in the game and he’s going to have to prove it for his team to stand a chance. Dwight Howard may unleash an arsenal of crowd pleasing dunks, but d’at about it. Ming has a complete offensive repetoire and the mind to use it appropriately. He’s equally comfortable with his back to the basket or facing it, he can extend the defense with his accuracy from the perimeter and coupling his court vision with such size allows him to easily find teammates out of a double team. Plus he makes his free throws. If Yao has any problems, they’re that he tires quicker than he actually moves and he’s entirely dependent on teammates to get him the ball that don’t always seem concerned with doing so.
L.A. should be expected to push the pace in order to fatigue Ming and limit his impact on both ends of the court. However if the Rockets can establish themselves in the half court and actually feed Yao the ball, then he can not only score at will, but create opportunities for his teammates. Houston is a team devoid of perimeter players capable of creating their own shot and are essentially slaves to their half court sets. Yao’s play is essential to the success of those sets. Asserting himself early and perhaps getting Andrew Bynum into more foul trouble will open up the floor for the Rockets and then things come down to whether they can make their jumpers.
COURT ATTENTION AT ALL COST
Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing. Never let yourself get lost in the crowd, then, or buried in oblivion. Stand out. Be conspicuous, at all cost. Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colorful, more mysterious than the bland and timid masses.
The stars may be aligned in this series, but each team will be looking to other players to ensure victory. As always, Lamar Odom will be watched closely and it will be interesting to see whether his game blooms or shrinks under the spotlight. With Artest and Battier’s attention devoted to Kobe, Odom is a matchup problem for any remaining Rocket and while he may not start, he will see extensive action. He’s simply too fluid for Luis Scola, Carl Landry or Chuck Hayes to contain and should provide adequate reinforcement on the boards. His ability to corral a rebound and lead a fast break could be integral to the Lakers gameplan of pushing the pace, but whether he can stay out of foul trouble and bang in the paint with Houston’s bigs is another question.
Battier will obviously have his hands full defensively, however it’s important for him not to lose any vigor on the other end. Though not necessarily an offensive juggernaut, he still finds open spaces on the floor and has shown a penchant for nailing big jumpers. Every time he makes the Lakers pay for doubling Yao or going under a screen, things get that much easier for the Rockets. The same can be said for Luis Scola. No one foresees him dominating Pau Gasol, but the closer he plays the Spaniard to a draw the better. Gasol was manhandled on the glass by Utah and Scola-along with Hayes and Landry-have the smarts to snare more than his fair share of rebounds, which will be a vital component of this series. Limiting the Lakers second chance points and securing opportunities of their own will help control the pace.
Ultimately, the Lakers are just too versatile and Houston isn’t strong enough defensively to slow them down. This isn’t a slight, the Rockets are a formidable defensive unit-particularly in the half court-but unless they deny all penetration, close out on every shooter and grab every rebound, they simply can’t withstand the number of options L.A. has offensively. The combination of having to contain the game’s most potent scorer while keeping tabs on two talented postmen is too much for almost anyone. And this is without fully addressing how shorthanded the Rockets are offensively.
They’ll fight hard through the first two games, but unless they steal one, Game Three could be when they’re worn down for good.
Lakers in five.