Commentary

PER Diem: May 7, 2009

Behind all the elbows and ejections lies a more important issue: L.A. may be in trouble

Updated: May 7, 2009, 2:35 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Carl LandryAP Photo/Chris CarlsonCarl Landry (left) had 21 points and 10 boards off the bench in Wednesday's loss.

While the Lakers wait to see if they'll have their starting backcourt for Game 3 on Friday (ESPN, 9:30 ET), let's take a moment to discuss something that's receiving very little attention this morning:

The basketball game.

L.A.'s 114-98 win became little more than a backdrop to all the screaming over elbows and cheap shots and such, but it was very interesting in its own right. The Lakers made a big run, the Rockets battled back, and so it went for most of the first three and a half quarters before tempers started flaring.

And in the end, the upshot of it all is that, despite the win, the Lakers should be even more worried now than they were after Game 1. And it's not just because they might be a man or two down in Game 3. It's the implications for the series as a whole that should have them concerned.

Let's run down the list, shall we:

L.A. made all the adjustments

Phil Jackson finally got the memo that the way you beat Yao Ming is by using smaller, quicker players to front him on offense and attack him on defense. The result was four field goal attempts and five fouls for Yao. This at least proves that Jackson's more flexible than Nate McMillan, who apparently was waiting for Game 12 to make that adjustment in the first round.

The Lakers' lineup shake-up appeared to catch the Rockets off guard -- witness that 39-25 first quarter. Yes, Houston knew it was coming, but it's one thing to know about it and another to face it in person.

Here's how much L.A. shut down Yao: Until 6:56 remained in the fourth quarter, his only two shot attempts came on putbacks. For the entire part where the game was still in question, he had zero shot attempts from the post. (That first shot attempt from down low ended up being notable for another reason: it was the play where Kobe Bryant elbowed Ron Artest.)

But even after playing that card, and playing a desperation game at home, the Lakers didn't exactly land a haymaker. And now it's Houston's turn to adjust. They'll exploit the back side of the defense more now that they know what's coming, reversing the ball to get Yao open. Either that or they'll catch Luis Scola popping free at the top like they did in the Portland series.

The bottom line is that in Game 3, it's far more likely the Lakers are the ones caught off guard, because the element of surprise is gone. Yao may not go off they way he did in Game 1, but I guarantee he'll get more than four shots.

Kobe made a bunch of very difficult shots

The good news for L.A. is that Kobe scored 40 points by making a bunch of shots that few players in the world could convert. The bad news for L.A. is that Kobe had to take those shots in the first place.

Bryant shot 12-of-20 on jumpers outside the paint, most of which were contested by the long arms of Shane Battier. That's amazing. It's also almost certainly unsustainable. Nobody shoots 60 percent on midrange jumpers for very long, which is why Houston has tried so hard to force Bryant into those shots in the first place. In Game 1, for instance, Bryant was 8-for-23 on the same shots.

For the season, Bryant shot 42.4 percent on long 2s and 62.2 percent at the basket. He may have won the battle, but the Rockets are winning the war by dictating the type of shot attempts he gets. If Bryant can't get to the rim and the free throw line more often, he's going to be hard-pressed to continue scoring at this rate.

Houston's bench is outperforming L.A.'s

L.A.'s incredible shrinking bench keeps providing less as the season gets deeper. Andrew Bynum was approximately worthless for a second straight game, picking up three fouls in nine minutes while going scoreless. Sasha Vujacic has succeeded in baiting Von Wafer into off-ball offensive fouls but provided little else, as the Lakers' guard committed a Bynum-esque seven fouls in 24 minutes through the first two games of the series and is struggling with his shot.

Luke Walton returned Wednesday night but also missed several wide-open Js, leaving Shannon Brown once again as the lone Laker reserve to provide a positive spark. Of course, depending on how NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson rules, Brown might be pressed into service as a starter for Game 3.

Meanwhile, Houston's bench got the Rockets back in the game in the second quarter and nearly did it again in the fourth. Carl Landry absolutely destroyed the Lakers inside, finishing with 21 points, in spite of missing six foul shots, and 10 boards. Chuck Hayes hasn't done much offensively but has been a huge presence defending the post, continually denying Pau Gasol prime position and controlling the glass. Even Wafer played very well prior to his little snit with Rick Adelman, scoring seven points in nine minutes.

Houston still scored

The Rockets weren't a good offensive team in the regular season. They ranked only 17th in offensive efficiency on the season and won mainly because of a suffocating defense. Playing on the road against an elite team, we'd expect them to struggle to produce offense.

But even with their best offensive player being denied shot attempts, and Wafer being banished to the locker room after just nine minutes, and Lowry firing up bricks, the Rockets still put together another decent offensive game.

This gets back to something we heard muttered during the Utah series: L.A. has lost some of its defensive intensity. And while the Lakers proved Wednesday night that their elbows remain sharp, they have some work to do when it comes to actually getting stops.

Houston scored 198 points in two games in the Lakers' building. In the 29 games prior, they'd scored 98 or more in regulation only eight times. All of those games were against teams far below the Lakers in the defensive standings: Phoenix twice, Portland three times, the Clippers, Sacramento and Golden State.

The last time the Rockets scored 98 points against a team in the top nine in defensive efficiency rankings was Jan. 19 against Denver. The last time they did it on the road was Nov. 22 in Orlando. That was 76 games ago, people.

But they did it twice in a row against the Lakers. Yes, the games were on the fast-paced side, but the Rockets were reasonably efficient, too. In both games, they scored more than a point per possession, and did so despite a rash of turnovers (38 combined) and mediocre 3-point shooting (14-of-42).

As a result, the defense has to be No. 1 on the Lakers' list of concerns as the series moves to Houston. Yes, this is a Series now, with a capital S. And not just because of the bad blood from Game 2. Houston played L.A. to a draw on its soil, and now it's incumbent on the Lakers to win at least once in Texas. I'm still picking the Lakers to advance, but based on how Game 2 played out, it's not going to be easy.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.