PER Diem: May 11, 2009
People are writing off the Rockets and the Lakers for different reasons. But why?
It's all too easy to write those words about a team any time a crisis comes up -- injuries, slumps, locker-room dramas, or whatever other obstacles arise during the long season.
It's also, in most cases, completely inappropriate. And the Rockets and Lakers provide two compelling examples for us to study why.
First, let's talk about the obvious one: Houston. Nobody gave the Rockets much of a chance after hearing they had lost Yao Ming for the rest of the playoffs; certainly, there wasn't a soul who foretold them being up by 27 after three quarters on Sunday.
Yet the Rockets' success only mimics what they did a year ago. After Yao was lost for the season, Houston won nine consecutive games to run its amazing streak to 22 before finally succumbing; the Rockets went 18-7 without Yao before losing to Utah in six games in the first round. Even that playoff loss came in part because of a second injury, to point guard Rafer Alston, that led to home losses in the first two games.
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Compare that edition of the Rockets to this season's. Ron Artest fills in where Tracy McGrady was a year ago -- no big difference there. While McGrady was getting all kinds of ludicrous MVP chatter because of Houston's winning streak, he actually struggled offensively down the stretch last season. McGrady didn't make more than half his shots in a game once after March 8, a span of 26 games; the Rockets were just winning anyway.
Go up and down the roster and Houston looks better at nearly every spot than it was a season ago. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry are now the point guard combo, replacing Alston and Bobby Jackson, and that has to be considered an upgrade. This season's Luis Scola is better than last season's Scola. Carl Landry was battling a sore knee at this time last year; now he's back and playing very well. Von Wafer is better than Luther Head. Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier are no better than a season ago, but no worse, either.
So we shouldn't have expected the Rockets to be toast just because of who was on the sideline; the players remaining on the court have shown they can be a pretty effective force despite a lack of marquee names. Sunday's lopsided win only proved it.
That said, let's now tackle the other side of the equation: The Lakers.
With as bad as they looked on Sunday, the prevailing opinion on L.A. is that they don't look anywhere near championship material -- in fact, that they're the third-best team in these playoffs behind Cleveland and Denver.
That may well prove to be true, but before we get too far along in writing them off, perhaps we should consult some history books. The NBA landscape is littered with champions who looked nothing like the part midway through the second round.
Let me remind you of the history of our past six champions:
• A year ago, Boston reached this point in the playoffs with a sterling 6-5 mark against two teams that had allowed more points than they'd scored in the regular season. Following a second straight double-digit loss to Cleveland, commentators openly questioned the ability of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to deliver in the clutch.
• A year earlier, the Spurs lost Game 4 at home to Phoenix to even the series 2-2, and didn't have home-court advantage. It took the controversial suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw a day later to propel them toward the title.
• In 2006, Miami had lost twice to Chicago in the opening round and dropped the opener of Round 2 to New Jersey before rallying toward the title. Like this season's Lakers squad, the Heat were seen as horrific underachievers at the time.
• The 2005 Spurs reached this point tied 2-2 with the Sonics in a rough, physical series in which the Sonics got under the Spurs' skin. It's easy to forget now, but a sizable contingent of media already had their golf clubs and Coppertone packed for a Phoenix-Miami Finals.
• In 2004, the Pistons were in even worse shape. Not only were they tied 2-2 with the Nets after a second straight one-sided loss in the Swamp, they went on to lose Game 5 at home because they couldn't contain Brian freaking Scalabrine. Still, they went on to win it.
• In 2003, San Antonio also found itself knotted at 2-2 against three-time defending champion L.A. -- in fact at this point in the postseason the Spurs' record was just 6-4, and lot of critics were pointing to their alleged softness as a reason they wouldn't prevail.
Six straight champions had adversity staring them in the face at this point in the playoffs; not since the Lakers' three-peat have we seen a champion get through a second-round series without having to answer a lot of questions along the way.
Yes, the Lakers looked awful in Game 4. Uninspired, nonchalant, entitled ... you name it and the adjective fits. And yes, obviously, that's a worrying sign.
But no, this doesn't mean we get to write them off as a title contender. Recent NBA history is positively littered with examples like theirs -- in fact it seems to be a more common path to glory than the ones Cleveland and Denver have embarked upon thus far.
So while Houston shouldn't be feeling jolly about losing Yao Ming and L.A. can't be too excited about Sunday's performance, there are precedents for each being a much less cataclysmic event than we might think. Their paths just got harder, for sure, but it's definitely not over.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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