Ball Don't Lie - NBA


Houston 100, Los Angeles Lakers 92
(Houston leads series, 1-0)

We've seen it for years. Whenever a Phil Jackson-coached team comes out in the first game of a series after having a significant time off between rounds, the squad falls flat. Now, this doesn't usually result in a loss, usually the Bulls or Lakers have it sussed out by the second half; but it's worth mentioning that the Rockets are no ordinary team to be sussed over.

We realized this during the regular season, when they took in great production from all angles in what could have been another frustrating, injury-plagued year. Now, I picked Los Angeles to win the series in five games, but that's mainly because I assumed that Los Angeles' ability to be just that much better in the fourth quarter of close games would sustain. We know that the Rockets were about a half-dozen moves away from sweeping the season series with Los Angeles.

Those moves, though, for however many excuses we make for a Rockets team we like quite a bit, weren't executed. And the Lakers walked, in some cases, after going back and forth for the first three quarters. Not sure if you noticed, but this was pointed out about 22 times by TNT on Monday night. I could only guess that this trend would keep up.

So while the Lakers are to be feared and respected, they're also to be guarded well, and attacked from the perimeter. And that's exactly what Houston did in a fabulous show of well-meaning, well-researched, intelligent, and inspired basketball.

All the right plays fell the right way for Houston, they left themselves the potential for the win, and wasted precious few possessions on both ends. Ron Artest took some ruddy awful shots, but he also made some ruddy awful shots, shooting 8-15 from the field, tossing seven assists around the half-court, and helping to keep ... well, Kobe Bryant scored 32 points.

Still, as was mentioned quite a few times on the national telecast, Kobe needed 31 shots to get there. And while we wouldn't go so far as to call a 32-point, eight-rebound, four-assist, two-turnover, two-steal game a wash, Kobe wasn't able to win the game by his lonesome, on a night where Pau Gasol (14 points on 14 shots, four turnovers) and Lamar Odom (1-6 from the free throw line) struggled.

And Artest, to his credit, did a rather Shane Battier-esque job of forcing Bryant to his left, getting a hand in his face, while refusing to body up too much or tug on Superman's cape. Not that Kobe needed the motivation. And, not that Kobe was stinking it up. As Artest mentioned following the game, he was just a few combined inches away from what would have probably been a 38 or 39-point night.

But, as it was for the Rockets in the regular season, those inches weren't there. And Bryant did himself no favors by continually pulling up for those contested 22-footers that even the best players (pretty safe to say Kobe can be included in that lot) can't make more than a third of the time on average. Just about 98 points per 100 possessions for Los Angeles, proof of a stellar defensive night from the Rox.

On the other end, Derek Fisher's defensive year from hell continued, as Aaron Brooks (19 points) was on skates all game long. Kyle Lowry and Carl Landry played well off the bench, Shane Battier's defense was just as good as (if not better than) Artest's, and Yao Ming was the stud of studs with 28 points and 10 rebounds.

Just two turnovers, too, in 40 minutes. And after a scare, my evening turned back into a happy Monday when I saw the replay showing Kobe Bryant's knee ramming into Yao's. Not because I wanted to see Yao in pain, far from it, but because (after not getting a good initial look at what caused his discomfort) it meant Yao hadn't torn anything. Just a knocked knee, which hurts like you wouldn't believe, but nowhere near as devastating as a season-ending ligament tear.

Two blocks for Yao, too. Great to watch. Fantastic to watch.

The Lakers will improve. Theirs is an offense built around rhythm and quick, inspired, reactions. And it's hard to jump right into mid-season flow after a week off. Odom and Gasol will improve, the passing will actually result in something, Kobe will likely use Artest's aggressiveness against him, and Jordan Farmar (who nailed a three-pointer in three minutes of action) might see more minutes.

I had feared that this would be a quick series, full of close games. The opposite of Hawks/Heat, where we get five (or possibly four) semi-classics that all end up with the same team raising the "W" flag. With Houston striking first, there's a legitimate reason to keep hoping for seven games.

That said, the Lakers are smart. They know exactly what they did wrong, and they're usually keen to make up for that. Look out.

Orlando 95, Boston 90 (Orlando leads series, 1-0)

It was obvious, about two minutes into the game. Boston wasn't used to this. All of the sudden, the players on the other team were tall, they were playing defense, and they were setting screens. And Boston took about three and a half quarters to stop staggering.

Meanwhile, the Magic kept working. Kept moving the ball, kept trying to find the open man, while continuing to offer the sort of knock out defense we've come to expect from them.

I can't kill the C's for this. Once again, they're missing a Hall of Famer. And while I didn't see much evidence of fatigue (Ray Allen, maybe? Tell you on Wednesday, I reckon), I did see familiarity breeding a Game 1 loss. Familiarity in another, lesser, team.

This team just played 371 minutes against the same outfit from Chicago, spread over 14 days. Then, after a day off, they had to try and ignore that muscle memory that told them that the lane was theirs for the taking. Or the reflective knowledge that told them they could get out on shooters, because the screener in their way was a point guard. That they had a chance.

They didn't have a chance, because they were so used to the bloody Bulls. And the Magic took advantage, running out to an 18-point first half lead before both teams essentially played the third quarter to a hilt. Boston came back, Rajon Rondo got some feet under him and the C's spread the floor well enough to hit some shots, but it wasn't enough.

Not going to freak out over a Magic collapse. Refuse to do it. This is a team that plays over its head offensively, with a lot of parts that can go cold, and they were going up against a desperate team. It's hard to ably stay in front of a team that was taking as many chances as Boston was, with those passes and all the three-pointers. Chances like that can result in a 16-point lead jumping up to 30, it happens all the time, but it can also result in the desperate team nearly coming all the way back. You know what you saw.

But before the comeback, Boston was just knocked on its ass by Orlando's defense. Not only were the Magic covering angles and diving into driving lanes way, way better than Chicago was, they were doing it against taller players. That means so much.

That isn't to say that Boston didn't have quite a bit rejected by the Bulls -- Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah averaged almost five a game, combined, in the first round -- but the sheer impact of going against an orthodox lineup (and in reality, Orlando is undersized, but compared to Chicago ...) really shook the Celtics.

So let's see how Doc Rivers counters this. And how Stan Van Gundy anticipates those adjustments, prepares before Game 2, and works his own counters in before the third quarter of Game 2. I can't wait for stuff like this. Game 2s always slay me.

A couple of other, smaller, points ...

*English cannot be Reggie Miller's first language.

*Rajon Rondo's attempted dunk on Dwight Howard may have been the impressive missed slam I've seen ... ever? To think that his attempt almost went in?

*J.J. Redick had 12 points on five shots in the win, and followed up his solid turn defending Louis Williams with another strong night out on that end, this time against Ray Allen.

*While attempting to assuage the pain of Saturday's Game 7 on Sunday, my father referred to Brian Scalabrine as "... that one forward, the Italian Disease," before attempting to spit out Scal's last name.

The Italian Disease? I'll do my best to get it to stick.

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