- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Houston comes into this series off a very impressive and balanced performance against a talented Portland team. Importantly, the Rockets played their best game of the series in Game 1, on the road, and beat Portland all three times at home. Of course, it's a recipe they'd like to cook up again in Round 2. Los Angeles cruised to a 4-1 series win over Utah. The games were tough battles, but it seemed L.A. rarely had to dig deep to pull out any of the wins. That was fine against an outmanned Jazz squad, but they are now facing a very tough defensive team that seems to tighten up on defense even more in the playoffs.
The Lakers are working toward building a momentum that reaches its peak in the NBA Finals. Houston is working off the momentum it built in Round 1. Los Angeles offers Kobe Bryant and a very deep bench, along with an All-Star-level power forward in Pau Gasol. Houston can counter with Yao Ming, excellent role players, and the deepest set of power forwards in the NBA. Both of these teams are extremely well coached, playing with a purpose most nights, and coming off a pair of series in which they shot well from the field.
Lakers' offense vs. Rockets' defense
The Lakers scored 111.1 points per 100 possessions in Round 1, compared to 109.8 in the regular season (No. 3 overall). Houston gave up 103 points per 100 possessions against Portland, compared to 101.4 during the season (No. 4 overall).
Do not be fooled into thinking that Houston's defense got worse in the playoffs, as it held Portland to almost eight points per 100 possessions lower than what it had done during the season (while their offense scored a point better). In short, Houston's defense was suffocating. In their last two games, the Rockets held the "other Blazers" (everyone other than Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge) to 23-of-65 from the field.
The Rockets did this by being terrific at predicting where the rotation pass was heading to and racing to that defender in a timely manner. They are a team that executes its defensive strategy beautifully: switches, lock-and-trails, going over or under screens, finding shooters, guarding the right guy in transition -- all are strong aspects of Houston's defense. Most importantly, though, is the way the Rockets defend the paint. They are expert at getting their hands into post passing lanes, where they pick up deflections and steals. And in loose-ball situations, they are often first to the floor. Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Ron Artest, Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes give them five tough and heady paint defenders who often win 50/50 balls. Lowry does the same thing for them out on the perimeter.
The presence of Yao Ming inside will force guys slashing or cutting to the rim to pause, even for a moment, which allows Houston's help guys to rush back into place. And those help defenders are among the best in basketball, aware of the biggest threats and quick to react within the constructs of the defensive strategies they are employing. In my mind, they are almost equal to Cleveland on this side of the ball, the two best half-court defensive teams in the playoffs.
Los Angeles can counter with an exquisite offensive system that features one of the three best offensive players in the NBA, and the best in the West at carrying his team on this side of the floor. Kobe spent much of the early parts of Round 1's games working to get his teammates involved. He rarely looked for his own, and it generally worked well. Until, that is, Los Angeles needed to win Game 4 and more or less clinch the series.
Kobe Bryant 's jump-shooting ability allows him to be a scoring threat within 27 feet, at any spot on the floor. But his willingness to be part of the overall offensive flow means that Houston cannot just focus on what he's doing and where he is. The Lakers can post up Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum opposite Kobe, limiting help on them from the weakside. They'll run ball-screen action with Derek Fisher for the same purpose. Their triangle action, especially weakside cuts, also works better because of the attention Kobe draws. Houston can put Artest and Battier on Kobe and feel as good as any team can about defending him with either guy. But he'll still require more than one guy to slow him down most of the time, and this is where Houston's superior defensive reactions will come into play.
Most importantly, Los Angeles is very comfortable pushing pace, taking only good shots if they are early ones. This puts incredible pressure on Houston's bigs to race back and protect the paint, allowing the guards (first guys back) to then locate and close out on shooters. If Houston can force L.A. to attack its defense when it's at full strength on most possessions, the Rockets will have gone a long way toward earning a win. That is, as long as they keep Lamar Odom and Gasol off the glass. Gasol, in particular, has given them problems in this area.
Rockets' offense vs. Lakers' defense
Houston scored 106.3 points per 100 possessions against Portland, after scoring 105.4 per 100 in the regular season. Los Angeles allowed 101.8 points per 100 possessions in Round 1, and 101.9 during the season.
Houston is an atypical NBA team on offense, as it features power and shooting skill at every position except for the lead guard. Most of their actions start with pinch-post entry passes, playing off Scola or Yao beautifully with cuts and isolations. Lacking slashers, they depend on solid screens and excellent timing on their movements. Only Aaron Brooks has the ability to beat his man off the dribble repeatedly, but his small size makes it tough on him to finish over the length inside of L.A. The fact that the Lakers won't have to provide too much help on Brooks' drives could stymie Houston on offense.
Because Houston's players will not be able to create 5-on-4 advantages by themselves, they must be sharp in their pinch-post and ball-screen executions. Sharp cuts off handoffs, speed turns around ball screens, quick hits to the screeners popping out, etc. If Houston players catch and hold too long, the Lakers' defenders will have the time to adjust and lock in on the ball, a huge advantage for them. Quick-flowing passes will move the Lakers' defense around, giving Houston more options for feeding Yao inside. More importantly, once Yao catches the ball, L.A. will send one or two players to help him.
So Houston must space out correctly and make L.A. pay with this help by getting open 3s and easy shots inside. Additionally, L.A. likes to send a guard toward Yao to foil his rhythm when he's sizing up his turnaround baseline jumper. And the Lakers will pinch him first from the top to force him that way. So Yao will have his biggest success if he can earn paint touches in the middle of the floor, limiting the doubling options and giving him easy jump-hooks.
Los Angeles, underrated as a defense most of the year, loves to send Odom into the ball-side box. His size and length can really mess up any offensive action. This is where Scola's passing and shooting skill can act as a big neutralizer. When Odom comes into the box, quick passes to Scola can result in open jumpers for himself or a swing pass to an open teammate. Scola is also a crafty penetrator, and will look to exploit gaps in L.A.'s defense once its rotations are in motion.
Artest can be a weapon on this side of the floor, both off the dribble (where he can overpower smaller guys to the rim) and as a catch-and-shoot guy. He's capable, though, of missing many shots without stopping. But he's often a terrific passer, threading the needle to cutting bigs, so L.A. has to be aware off the ball when he's in driving mode and not assume that he's just going to shoot.
Finally, Yao, Scola, Artest, Landry and even Kyle Lowry can be very physical on the offensive glass, an area that Boston exposed L.A. in last June. This will be a good test for L.A.'s overall toughness. Scola comes flying in from the pinch post and Lowry comes from the perimeter too, so it's not just up to Odom and Gasol to grab rebounds and be physical.
Brooks: Exploded for 50 points in the first two games of the series, making 19 of 29 shots and 9 of 13 from the 3-point line. Cooled considerably after that, hitting just 15 of 47 shots. Brooks struggles to make plays inside against the height and length of L.A.'s interior guys, so he'll have to depend on his outside shot to make any kind of scoring impact.
Fisher: Did what he needed to do in Round 1, other than an uncharacteristic five turnovers in Game 2. Only had one other turnover in the entire series. Made just 5 of 16 3-point attempts though, something he'll have to do a better job of against Houston. His defense against Brooks is something to key on if Brooks is shooting well.
Did what he always does in Round 1, executed the game plan with perfection and passion. Shot great in the first two home wins, but did not do as well in the other four games. He will be counted on heavily to both guard Kobe and be a primary helper on drives or post-ups. The effort he must make on this side of the floor could have a negative impact on his offense, and Houston needs him to make 3-pointers.
Bryant: Bryant was brilliant against Utah, facilitating early in all but one game, then exploding when the series was still undecided. His jumper is deadly, but so is his passing when teams orient too much to him. Houston has struggled to contain him, as he's given them over 28 ppg on 53 percent-plus shooting from the field and from the 3-point line. The "matchup" hype vs. Artest only serves as fuel for him.
Artest: He was both terrific and awful against Portland. He played the hero role in their series-clinching win, scoring 27 points, and scored 12 with nine assists in their Game 3 win. But he shot 36 3s in six games (making 10) and too often launched them early in the possession. Like Battier, he'll have to find his offense despite committing so much energy to defending and helping on Kobe, something he struggled with in their regular-season meetings. He averaged 6.3 3-point attempts against them, and made just one per game (15.8 percent).
Ariza: One of the top few surprises in the NBA playoffs thus far is Ariza's shooting performance in Round 1. Specifically, his 11-for-18 shooting from behind the line, after shooting just 32 percent from there this season. If he can continue to shoot well from the perimeter, it will put huge pressure on Houston's transition defense, as Ariza is good at racing down and spotting up. Marking him tightly means one less body in the paint to deal with Gasol posting and Kobe slashing.
Scola: Probably the team MVP for Round 1, as Scola torched Portland for 16.2 ppg, making 41 of his 72 shots. His ability to make the perimeter jumper off pick-and-pop action is vital in this series, both as a weapon in and of itself and a way to make L.A. pay for digging down hard on Yao. He's a bit undersized to check Gasol, Bynum, or even Odom on defense, but his intelligence and toughness can help him through it.
Odom: Just behind Kobe as the MVP for Round 1, Odom may come off the bench in certain games but he'll play the majority of the minutes. He made five of his 10 3-point attempts against Utah, but it was his ability to drive and finish that opened up L.A.'s offense, along with Ariza's shooting. And in the past three games, he pulled down a beastly 44 rebounds. When Odom is locked in like that, L.A. is almost impossible to beat over a seven-game series.
Yao: Despite numbers that were just solid (15.8 and 10.7), Yao was terrific against Portland. When they did not give him special attention, he was nearly perfect as a scorer (including 9-for -9 in Game 1). When they doubled and shadowed him, he was content to serve as a decoy and let his teammates make the necessary plays. He'll need to win his battle against Gasol and Bynum to give the Rockets any chance. Additionally, avoiding fouls against that tandem is mandatory now that Dikembe Mutombo is out.
Gasol: Very steady effort, as always, against Utah. If he can score inside against Yao and force Houston to send a second defender to help, L.A.'s cutters (Ariza and Odom) and Kobe's drives/post ups will be far more effective. Gasol averaged 18.5 ppg against Yao during the season. Likewise is his ability to defend Yao by himself -- if he can to some degree then Houston will have a far tougher time earning great shots. The biggest question for both he and Odom is how much toughness they bring to the games. Houston has a lot of similarities to how Boston plays and defends.
Landry: Landry is still recovering from a gunshot wound to his leg, but did play an important role in the Rockets' Game 3 win with 10 points. When healthy, he gives the Lakers real problems, and averaged over 14 ppg against them this season.
The former Lakers player loves playing against his old team, twice scoring 20 or more against them. He played solidly in Round 1, and is a threat to have a breakout game every night out.
Energetic game-changer who impacts the game with toughness. His three offensive rebounds in Houston's Game 4 may have been the key spark in that game.
Defensive specialist who may have to play a lot if Odom stays hot. Very good defender in late-game situations as well.
Started the first three games against Utah, but played only 26 total minutes in the last three games combined. Still not fully recovered from his knee surgery, but he would be a great addition to the frontline as he demands attention from Yao in front of the rim and opens things up for everyone else.
His offensive game completely deserted him in Round 1, making just 6 of 29 shots and missing all 11 of his 2-point attempts. He'll need to be sharper to help his bench unit match Houston's.
A very pleasant surprise for L.A., bringing tremendous athleticism and energy to the court. He scored nine or better in three games vs. Utah, and made 6 of his 9 3-ball attempts.
Even though Houston most resembles Boston, in terms of physicality and defensive excellence, the Rockets don't have the individual offensive talent to hurt L.A. too badly in this area. On paper, the matchups heavily favor L.A. But L.A. showed a level of casualness in Round 1 that is a bit concerning. If L.A. devolves into stationary offensive tactics relying on Kobe being a hero, it will go long stretches without scoring. And disinterest in help defense, which reared its ugly head numerous times in Utah, will end up hammering it thanks to Houston's power game.
The Rockets definitely have the defense and toughness to win this series, and now that they've advanced out of Round 1, their mental spirit will be at a five-year high. However, L.A.'s weapons on both sides of the floor should be able to earn the Lakers four wins first. Specifically, they can and should be able to shut down Houston for long stretches. That gives them the edge for pulling a road win as well.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
Scouts Inc. breaks down the Western Conference semifinals series between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers and picks the winner.