Lakers/Rox Game 1 Recap
Houston, we have a problem.
One of the most tired axioms in sports is that saying about how a playoff series doesn’t truly begin until the home team loses a game. Normally it makes me crazy – what about those seven-game series where the visitors never win a game? – but tonight, it totally applies.
Tonight, the playoffs officially began for the Lakers. That first-round series against the shooting-challenged Jazz and their cheesecloth defense? Ancient history. Tonight, the Rockets served notice that the Lakers are in for a battle. “I don’t know if we could play much worse,” said Phil Jackson, noting his team’s 2-18 shooting from beyond the arc.
Call it rust. Call it the Lakers’ six-day layoff between series, as compared to the Rockets’ four. Call it the law of averages: another tired axiom is that what happens in the regular season – like, say, one team sweeping all four games from the other, as L.A. did to Houston – is meaningless come playoff time.
Or, you can tip your hat to Rick Adelman for a masterful game plan – kinda like the ones he used to devise when his Sacramento Kings almost upset the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in 2002.
This is not to say the Rockets have the Lakers’ number or that they’ll even extend the series to seven. But it’s a real series now, and Jackson’s amazing 42-0 record in playoff series where his teams win Game 1 is now irrelevant. Jackson’s career playoff record when losing Game 1: 6-8.
Let the hand-wringing begin.
I arrive at Staples to learn that LeBron has won MVP, and the consensus in the Lakers locker room, and with Jackson, is that it’s tough to ignore the guy who plays for the team with the best record.
Jackson admits he’s a bit concerned with the Lakers’ “connective tissue” after the layoff – how well guys will rotate and cover for each other defensively. He’s worried about Bynum getting into early foul trouble on Yao, but if he throws too many defenders at Yao to help out, the Rocket’ three-point shooters could have a field day.
Adelman calls the Rockets’ trade for Carl Lowry the turning point of the season, in the wake of Tracy McGrady’s injury. At that point, he went to an 8-9 man rotation and made Yao the focal point of the offense. He’s concerned about the Lakers winning the game in the fourth quarter, as they did all four games during the season. (But the regular season doesn’t count, remember?)
He salutes the 2002 Lakers team that caused him so much heartbreak, saying people don’t realize just how good Shaq and Kobe were together in their prime.
Finally, it’s Ron Artest time, and can I just say there is no better interview in the league? Artest didn’t flinch when asked about his recent comments about Brandon Roy being the best guard he’s played against. “Some people might go back and say, I never said that, but not me,” he says.
What did he think about the MVP voting? “I thought Brandon Roy was going to get it,” Artest says with perfect deadpan.
Artest talked at length about his admiration for the younger stars coming into the league and how they can lead their teams. “I’m finished looking up to Kobe,” he says with a smile. “It’s the young guys I look up to now – Roy, and LeBron, Dwyane Wade… O.J. Mayo.”
At 29, Artest admits to feeling old, but says “There’s guys younger than me that can’t play defense like me.” He said his most important role in this series is to “help lead”, and lamented McGrady’s loss (“Me and T-Mac on the perimeter – that would’ve been something”).
It only takes 25 seconds for Bynum to commit his first foul on Yao, a bad omen if there ever is one. He draws a second foul minutes later, and is relegated to the bench for most of the night, including the entire fourth quarter. He plays a total of 15 minutes, which can’t happen if the Lakers are going to win the series.
With Bynum out, the burden of handling Yao falls to Pau Gasol, and it takes a toll on his shooting. Gasol is out of whack, missing open jumpers and even passes, but he’s not alone. The entire team comes out flat and lethargic, the Rockets racing to a 19-12 lead, and Shane Battier sticking to Kobe Bryant like crazy glue.
The crowd comes to life when Bryant goes after Battier after getting tied up on a loose ball, which draws the first “Houston Sucks” chant. Earlier, Luis Scola had drawn blood on Pau Gasol after a rebound. In the waning seconds of the first quarter, Sasha Vujacic and Battier fight for a rebound, and Battier opens up a gash over his left eyebrow that would make Evander Holyfield proud. Blood running down his face, Battier runs off the court. Undaunted, he would return soon after, just as the Rockets would absorb the Lakers’ best hits (not that there were all that many) and hit back even harder.
A couple of rows behind me, a loud, passionate Rockets fan is screaming at Aaron Brooks to “Push the rock!” It doesn’t take long for the entire section to realize they’re sitting next to the Fan From Hell, but he knows his stuff. “Listen to me!” he shouts at Luis Scola. “Get the ball to Artest!” Scola does, and Artest scores.
Next to me is SLAM’s Vince Thomas, who writes the Commish column. As Bynum returns for the second quarter and fires up three quick shots in succession, Vince shakes his head. “Bynum shoots every time he touches the ball,” he says. A closer look reveals he’s right. When he gets the ball, it goes right up.
Rockets are playing the same physical game they played when they were here in March, and they’ve cut the court down to about three-quarter size. Kobe can’t find enough space; his teammates can’t make open shots, and the Lakers can’t get a sustained run. Kobe’s also not quite looking like himself, with his sore throat and all.
At halftime, the Rockets lead by only three, and a restless crowd awaits the patented Lakers run that will eventually put the game away.
But that big run never comes, thanks in large part to Aaron Brooks.
Before the game, Jackson had expressed concern about the Rockets’ speedy guards, Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry, and Brooks runs wild, juking and jiving his way to the baseline for open layups and making Derek Fisher look old and slow. Fisher is finally pulled for Jordan Farmar, a matchup we can expect to see more often, since Brooks seemed to be just getting started.
The Lakers finally make a move in the fourth, Shannon Brown’s electrifying steal leading to free throws that give L.A. a 1-point lead, but the game changes on two plays: a three-point play by Artest immediately after, snatching the lead right back, and Yao’s apparently game-ending knee injury, with the Rockets up 85-79 with 4:48 to play. Surely now, the Lakers would rally, and the Rockets would watch another fourth quarter lead slip agonizingly away.
But wait – a mere 57 seconds later after he had to be helped off the court and down the tunnel, here comes Yao (“It was like Rocky coming back,” Adelman said later) to hit a feathery jumper that silences the building, and the Rockets slowly pull away.
“Lakers are soft in the paint!” the Fan From Hell shouts repeatedly. “They’re soft!” On this night, at least, he isn’t wrong.
Phil Jackson’ first words as he enters the media room: “It’s not as bad as it seems,” he says, as if needing to reassure everyone from Staples to Simi Valley. “We’re going to be OK.”
But Jackson has to be concerned, not just about the obvious effects of the layoff, but about the questions that plagued the Lakers a year ago: have they toughened up enough to win a title? Are they better equipped to handle adversity? Bryant, with his usual disdain, dismissed any such talk.
“We missed a lot of wide-open looks,” he says. “Guys were hesitating. I don’t think that will be the case on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see how we respond.”