No Yao, no problem as Rockets roll
HOUSTON -- It looks like the more All-Stars you remove, the better the Houston Rockets play.
Yao Ming, his season over after high-resolution scans showed a hairline fracture in his left foot, joined Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo in the Rockets' suit-and-tie fashion show Sunday, a combined 15 All-Star Games, two scoring championships and four Defensive Player of the Year awards sitting on the bench.
No matter. The downsized Rockets dominated the Lakers from the beginning of Game 4, leading by 29 points at one stage of an easy, 99-87 victory that tied these Western Conference semifinals at 2-2.
"We're a resilient group," Shane Battier said. "We've talked about bouncing back, bouncing back ... through adversity, through lineup changes, through trades, through injuries. We never quit and we never stopped believing."
No one thought the Rockets would quit after the devastating news of Yao's latest injury. But when we dismissed them, we didn't figure the Lakers would stop trying themselves.
Los Angeles was out of it from the outset, missing 9 of 11 shots and turning the ball over four times in the first six minutes, falling behind 19-4 and never causing so much as a bead of worrisome sweat to form on Houston's foreheads.
"We were never competitive," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
"We're a little bit of a team that needs to have sometimes a spark put in us to play."
For now it's time to stop wondering how their inconsistent efforts translate into potential matchups down the road and get back to this series, which just became a best-of-three.
The final stats in Game 4 turned out to be pretty close, thanks to a meaningless fourth quarter the Lakers won 33-16. But the telltale numbers of who wanted this game more could still be found in the rebounding column, which the Rockets won 43-37 despite starting 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes at center.
It's not often you'll hear praise for a man who was outscored 30-2, but Hayes' seven rebounds at halftime were more than any Laker, and Pau Gasol's 18 fourth-quarter points were the equivalent of an A-Rod ninth-inning home run in a blowout.
The other noticeable part of the stat sheet: The list of Rockets setting new playoff career highs was as long as the list of injured Rockets players. New marks were established by Aaron Brooks (34 points), Battier (23 points) and Luis Scola (14 rebounds).
The Rockets have been running their offense through Yao ever since McGrady shut it down in February. Battier said his job had been to "get the ball to Yao." Before Game 4, the Houston coaches emphasized using penetration to set up outside shots instead of forcing shots or interior passes in the lane. It helped that Kobe Bryant strayed away from Battier (he usually leaves players he doesn't respect) and Battier happily fired up 10 3-pointers and made five of them. Those shots alone matched Bryant's 15 points, and after a rare victory in this head-to-head matchup, Battier said, "This box score may be framed in my house somewhere. He's going to come back with a vengeance in Game 5. There's no question."
That's been the MO for Bryant and the Lakers so far. Kobe averaged 39 points in the games after the Lakers' two previous playoff losses, and he seems to take particular exception to the notion he can be contained.
The Rockets did as good a job as could be expected, keeping Bryant in confined areas, forcing him to shoot with hands in his face or pass to teammates.
And now the Lakers might have their own injury issues to deal with. In the third quarter Lamar Odom charged into Battier, lost his balance and landed hard on his tailbone. Odom has back spasms, will undergo testing and treatment Monday and said he won't practice Monday and wasn't sure about his availability for Game 5 on Tuesday.
"Hopefully I can help them when they play," Odom said.
He wasn't of much benefit during his 25 minutes Sunday, with two points, six rebounds and three assists before the injury.
With each game Andrew Bynum looks less and less relevant. At one point he caught the ball in the low post with Ron Artest guarding him and never even looked at the basket before passing back out. His stat line: two rebounds and no points in under 12 minutes.
Derek Fisher returned from a one-game suspension for a flagrant foul 2, and he was a bigger part of the problem than the solution. He can't contain Brooks -- not that he had much help from his teammates when Brooks came off screens, which was one of Jackson's primary complaints. Fisher was booed every time he touched the ball, except for the derisive cheers he elicited when he air-balled a 3-pointer. He made only 1 of 4 shots and had a plus/minus of minus-22.
Backup point guard Jordan Farmar burned up whatever capital he built in his solid start in Fisher's absence. He took a couple of quick shots in the second quarter and found himself on the bench. And he went to sleep at the end of the third quarter while guarding Brooks, allowing Brooks to catch an inbounds pass lobbed from the backcourt and lay it in at the buzzer.
"As a team, we just wanted to be more aggressive," Brooks said. "Without Yao in there, the paint was going to open up a bit more. We just wanted to get into the middle and we hit a lot of 3s today."
Ten, on 29 attempts, to be specific.
Brooks was wearing a bright red jacket. The only disappointment is that none of the injured Rockets wore one as well, after the team hung them in every player's locker before Game 3. (Yao has an excuse; he says his didn't fit.) Yeah, it might have been a flagrant 2 fashion violation, but it would have been a fun gesture of team spirit -- and it couldn't have been any more unsightly than the sad effort put out by the Lakers on Sunday.
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