Los Angeles Lakers 111, Houston 98 (Series tied, 1-1)
So, so much to this game.
First off, the Lakers' hot start was fool's gold. It was nice to see, and impressive of Kobe Bryant(notes) to go off as he did in the face of great defense, but you could tell it was coming at the expense of setting up an offense that badly needs those first and third quarters to prime the engine. Penny-wise, pound-foolish.
I've just seen the Triangle in too many games to think that the Lakers were "on the right track." They weren't. Kobe was on the right track, nailing impossible shot after impossible shot as Shane Battier(notes) played letter-perfect defense save for one possession (a 1/3 screen and roll that he didn't fight through in his usual, A+-manner). Kobe was hot, but the Lakers weren't really running any offense.
And as crazy as that first quarter seemed, the thing that stood out to me was the "25" next to Houston's name. 25 points, for a team that struggles to score. If the Lakers were "on the right track," they'd have brought it on both ends. On defense, they'd hold Houston to below 20 points. On offense, the assists (six, for 39 points?) would be way up. That wasn't the case.
That's why it kind of bugged the hell out of me when, in the second quarter, Kevin Harlan talked about how the Lakers had really "turned up the defense in Game 2," when they were in the process of giving up about 35 points in only 15 minutes of play. One Shannon Brown(notes) jump ball does not a good defensive night make. Something like that.
And because Los Angeles never got into an offensive rhythm, the spacing was shot, the players were hesitant, the mistakes were many, the decisions poor, and the ball wasn't going in. And Kobe Bryant, brilliant though he may be, cannot continue to hit fadeaway 20-footers with a hand directly in both of his eyes while moving to his left at, if history is any clue, more than a 34 percent clip. So to expect anything close to his early shooting mark to sustain, would be ridiculous.
That second quarter was all bad movement, bad decisions, and (late, when Kobe and Lamar Odom(notes) tried to take over), one on one play. So the Rockets came back, made a game of it, made a tie of it. Then lost. For so many reasons.
Paramount of which was the play of Kobe Bean. If you saw it, you know he had to work for his 40, Shane Battier was in his face all game, he was funneled toward help, and he made outrageous shot after outrageous shot. That isn't to say they were bad shots, though you know my frustration with the 20-footer by now (they went in on Wednesday, didn't go in on Monday, and he has a history of making less than his usual amount against Battier), and they were out of the confines of the Triangle.
I've done this for years with Kobe, and I get branded a hater; but I also did it with Michael Jordan sans Yahoo! blog platform. I know this offense, so does Kobe, and he's going to have to trust it a bit more if his team is going to beat the Rockets. And, eventually, beat better teams.
He has to become a force beyond a dribble-dribble-dribble pull-up guy. He can get his 35 while working off the ball, flashing quickly, setting screens, and using Houston's aggressiveness against itself. We've seen him do it before. He was awesome tonight, but he knows better. He knows he can't keep this sort of superhuman play up. Nobody has ever done it. Not even Jordan.
That's why 23 assists for the Lakers on 43 made field goals, at home, tells a big story. And that has nothing to do with losing Derek Fisher(notes) for a quarter, because he's not a big assist guy as it is. The Lakers have to run that offense, consistently. They have to get everyone involved. Kobe was jaw-droppingly great in Game 2, but what happens when the contested, fadeaway 20-footers spin out? Who's going to be ready, if they haven't seen the ball?
And I'm not trying to tell you that Kobe was selfish, or that the Lakers would have won without his steely, determined play. They needed all of it, even in a 13-point win. Be careful. That's all I'm saying. Don't get too used to relying on this.
For Houston? You have just as much offensive soul-searching, if not way, way more, to do. And it starts in the middle.
The turning point, to me, came at about the seven minute mark of the third quarter. The Rockets hadn't given Yao Ming(notes) a touch in ages (one shot in the ballgame at that point), and you just knew that if the Rockets didn't get a good look (in the midst of a 7-0 Lakers run), the Lakers could break it wide open. The ball went into Ming, he passed out to get a better re-post, and neither Aaron Brooks(notes) nor Shane Battier wanted to pull the trigger on another entry pass.
In that instance, you can't be afraid to fail. Forcing a lob is not as safe as ignoring Yao to dribble into the paint to take a shot of your own, but the upside is so much higher if you try to toss the rock to the 7-6 guy with skills. And it's been Houston's crippling inability to do that, for years, that has kept them out of the second round. And if they don't find a way to get back to finding Yao, they haven't a chance in hell at the third round. Or even six games in this round.
Time and time again in the second half the Rockets failed to make an entry pass. Sure, they're afraid of turning it over, so they responded by dribbling a ton and ... turning it over. Eight fourth quarter turnovers. 19 all day. 21 percent of the team's possessions ended in a miscue, which fed Los Angeles' transition attack, to say nothing of the scads of matchup issues that followed in the half court when the Rockets had to try to find their man on the fly.
This team has some real heavy, internal analysis to take in. It really has to look itself in the mirror and decide if it wants to be plucky overachievers, or a team worth reckoning with. I don't care if Houston took Game 1 from the Lakers, we know Los Angeles hadn't played for a week, and that's one game in six this season that Houston has won. And they won the game with Ron Artest(notes) hitting a series of bad, lucky, perimeter shots.
And what else? They won with Yao Ming getting the ball, and Yao Ming shooting the ball. That's the ticket to the next round. And if you don't have the guts to fire an entry pass that isn't anything less than a 100 percent certitude to get to the big man, than you don't deserve to move on. Simple as that. Find your go-to man, or go home.
The Lakers found theirs, on Wednesday. Kobe's "he can't guard me" nonsense annoyed the hell out of us, but the Lakers were putting up points -- big points, 120 per 100 possessions -- against a fantastic defense.
Pau Gasol(notes) slipped and finished his way towards 22 points on just 13 shots, with 14 rebounds and four blocks. Four assists. Just one turnover. Shannon Brown looked great. Jordan Farmar(notes) finally got it together on two baskets near the end. Luke Walton(notes) (five assists, six points in 20 minutes) helped. Build from here.
The soap opera shoves and whining, I've little interest in. Luis Scola(notes) may have flopped a bit, but Derek Fisher knew what he was doing. Get Fisher out of there, after that. Same with Artest, who can dish it but can't take it. Take a seat. Same with Von Wafer(notes). He could have been a fourth quarter difference, but he made the game about him. At the height of competition, your level of selflessness reveals your character, and sadly, we learned quite about Von on Wednesday.
This series has a chance to be a classic. Before then, however, both teams have some work to do.
Boston 112, Orlando 94 (Series tied, 1-1)
The thing that stood out to me in this game, more so than any bit of chippiness or hot shooting, were the knockout, picture-perfect screens the Boston Celtics were setting from beginning until the end.
Legal screens, effective screens, smart screens, screens, screens, screens. Legal Seafood, even. Throw in a pinpoint passer in Rajon Rondo(notes) (15 points, 18 assists, 11 rebounds, three turnovers, two steals), and some lights-out shooters like Eddie House(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) (how great was Eddie, that he gets mentioned first?), and you have a blowout.
That isn't to say that Boston's defense didn't improve, it did. But the real story of the game wasn't the Boston defense, or Orlando supposedly being sated with the split (I don't think that the case, but I can be persuaded otherwise), or Rafer Alston's slap.
To me, it was the way Boston played on offense. Great screens, and subtle changes in the way Rondo attacked the open spaces. Live dribbles, economy of movement. Just enough to get that extra step into the lane, into Howard, draw the defense, and end with the high percentage look.
That adjustment was enough, and you have to credit the Boston coaching staff. The Celtics didn't come out desperate, they just came out and played smart, efficient, dangerous basketball.
They also played defense. Rashard Lewis(notes) hasn't been much to behold since the first half of Game 1. Dwight Howard(notes) needed 13 shots to score 12 points, and turned the ball over five times. The Magic tossed in about 103 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would leave them around the lower rung of the NBA during the regular season. Obviously, poor decisions by Orlando helped bring this final tally about, but you can't deny Boston's influence in terms of creating an atmosphere that eventually resulted in failure.
What won it was the 123 points per 100 possessions the C's scored. That ridiculous ball movement that created 34 assists on 41 made field goals. The spacing (well, after a while he didn't need much space) that allowed Eddie House to score 31 points on only 14 shots. The resulting anger that will lead to a deserved suspension for Rafer Alston(notes).
The Slap? I don't care what might have happened between those two. You can't slap a guy. And you have to punish the guy that slapped a guy. A guy told me that once.