May 04, 2009
You've my heard my crackpot prediction — Lakers in 6 — and KD throws in his two cents below, but we also called in some of the NBA blogosphere's finest to help set up the Western Conference Semifinals. Up next: Josh from Silver Screen and Roll and Lee Grammier from The Dream Shake breakdown the LA-Houston series.
Silver Screen and Roll: As was the case in the first round, and likely will be until the Finals, this series is the Lakers to lose. If they play up to their full potential, there is no team in the West that can handle them. But as they showed us in the first round, that's a pretty big "if" — which is why they play the games.
Contrary to virtually everything you will read elsewhere on this matchup, pace is not the key to this series. The Lakers mindset is. When motivated, they bring the kind of effort, energy, and intensity that, when combined with their unparalleled talent, is simply too much for any team in the West to handle. But all too often, the Lakers are unfocused and disinterested, and that’s when their opponents have the chance to take them off guard.
Make no mistake about this: There is no team in the league that is not motivated and bringing their best game against L.A. It is the Lakers, and not their opponents, that must worry about their mindset. To that end, however, look for Phil Jackson to have the bench on a shorter leash, and to have much less patience for lineups that start to give away leads. Yes, you just might get to see a PJ timeout or two ...
This series will be billed as Houston’s defense versus L.A.’s offense, but don’t be too quick to discount the Lakers’ defense. By virtually all reliable metrics and measures, the Lakers defense was actually among the tops in the league during the regular season, despite the fact that to the naked eye, they often under whelmed on that end of the court. Their length and quickness are huge assets, which enable them to put forth an unimpressive effort and still get a very decent result. And when they truly apply themselves on that end of the court? For stretches, they can be the best defensive team in the league.
So while this could easily be a classic “good defense versus better offense” series, don’t be surprised if the deciding factor is actually the Lakers’ defense, which may not show up in full force on a consistent basis, but may often be a significant factor when the Lakers are putting together runs to open up big leads.
That said, the pundits are correct when they point to pace as a very significant factor in this series. Much of this revolves around Yao Ming, who will struggle to keep up if the Laker bigs run the floor and force him to keep up, punishing him with deep position and early buckets when he doesn’t. Yao is in the best shape of his basketball career right now, but he still isn’t built for an extended foot race. Fortunately, the Laker bigs are some of the best at running the floor. On the other hand, if the Rockets do succeed at slowing the game way down, it will be much tougher for the Lakers' to find a good shot against their set defense.
Regarding matchups, the obvious one that stands out is Yao Ming. For most of the first round, he had his way with Portland. But if Andrew Bynum plays well and Lamar Odom continues to play as he did against Utah, the two of them combined with Pau Gasol will make it hard for Yao to stay out of foul trouble. Nonetheless, those are big "ifs," and Laker fans should know not to count those chickens yet.
Ron Artest and Shane Battier are among the best wing defenders in the league, and Kobe will be working hard for everything he gets. That said, he seemed to have his way against Houston this year, so that should be an interesting subplot to watch.
Houston’s defense is top notch, and it is predicated upon forcing teams into bad shots and dominating the defensive glass, not getting steals and blocks. The Lakers need to get down the floor quickly, set up their offense before Houston can set up their defense, keep the ball moving as much as possible, and refuse to settle for jumpshots.
The Lakers swept the season series, regardless of how the games were played, and didn’t seem to have a hard time doing it. Nonetheless, Houston is playing very well right now, and the Lakers have yet to show they have the mentality necessary to truly dominate. If they bring it like they should, they’ll take this in five. But until they prove that they've got that mindset, I won't make the mistake of expecting a truly motivated Lakers team twice.
Lakers in 6.
The Dream Shake: What's that? There is a second round to the NBA playoffs? Really? I don't believe you. No I swear, I never had any idea that you could keep playing in May. Wait, it's coming back to me. Didn't the Rockets have these guys nicknamed The Dream, Glide and Round Mound a few years ago? Oh, it was twelve years ago? Hmm, I had forgotten about that. I guess when something hasn't happened for more than a third of your life you tend to forget it's an option.
This Houston Rockets team is good at making you forget. You don't have Tracy McGrady, no Rafer Alston, Yao hasn't been injured this season, JVG is officially gone, and the days of trading to get a max player instead of finding guys that actually fit are done. (There is no way that Daryl Morey should not be the GM of the Year he effectively traded Nicolas Batum for Ron Artest.) It's been a great ride over the second half of the season, one no Rockets fan wants to end. However, much like Ron Artest, my goal for this team was not a first round victory. Don't get me wrong; I understand the Lakers are the best/second best team in the league this season. It's a daunting task, but to be the best, you have to beat the best. It's a cliché I know, but that doesn't make it any less true. The Rockets are still being underestimated, and it may play right into their hands.
The Lakers are a great team — not a good one, a great one. The Rockets are not too dissimilar, as they are a true team in every sense on the word. I keep reading that the Lakers match up well with the Rockets. How exactly is that not true for the Rockets as well?
The point guard position is a wash; it's not five years ago anymore. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA, however, the Rockets can throw two elite defenders at him and Shane Battier is finally healed. Can they counter his amazing focus this year? At the 3-spot the Rockets have an advantage with Artest. I also hear Lamar Odom this and Lamar Odom that. Yes, he's always been a good player, he's also a big fan of going MIA from time to time. Gasol is the true advantage for the Lakers at power forward, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Luis Scola step it up even further and Carl Landry is slowly coming back to his norm. One last thing, Andrew Bynum wants Yao Ming, but if he wants to guard him one on one the Rockets will win game one by double digits. I hope that Phil Jackson lets this happen, but I know he won't. The real question is, does he allow him to prove he can/can't? If so, the Rockets will have a head of steam and will look to take the game by force.
Prediction: Rockets win Game 1, Lakers win games 2 and 3, Rockets win Game 4, Lakers win Game 5, Rockets win Game 6 and then anything can happen. Will the rich price out the true diehard in the upper deck at Staples for Game 7, negating home court advantage a bit? I don't know, but I do know this series is going seven games.
Kelly Dwyer: At some point, the things that make sense ("the Rockets will give Kobe all he can handle!") have to fall short, don’t they? I mean, the Rockets have made the Lakers work their ends off time and time again, but has that been enough to win the season series?
Or will that be enough to pull four wins in seven tries? I can’t, with any degree of honesty, say "yes." That isn’t to say Houston won’t compete, because they will. You know they will. And they’ll likely be beaten by a better basketball team.
Lakers in 5.
Also see: Denver-Dallas preview