The long, winding road

Updated: April 17, 2004, 4:24 PM ET
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

The Houston Rockets are a team in turmoil right now, and they're about to march their problems right into the lion's den on Saturday when they face the Los Angeles Lakers to begin the first round of the NBA playoffs.

You can never underestimate team chemistry. And with Kelvin Cato leading the charge, the Rockets are struggling to get on the same page with each other and with coach Jeff Van Gundy. Van Gundy is as prophetic and analytical as any coach in the league. He's quick to point out when his team isn't playing hard or smart ball. Tack on their lack of depth, and the Rockets have a tough road ahead of them.

All the while, a self-described "fatigued" Yao Ming continues to be a breath of fresh air by taking responsibility for his own shortcomings and poor performance. Yao might want to take a lesson from some of the less forthright players in the league who, when things don't go their way, simply point the blame somewhere else. And although Yao isn't an "I confess, he did it" kind of player, that certainly won't stop Van Gundy from calling him out to try to get him going.

The Rockets will need peak performances from each of their veterans to match up in this series -- something that rarely happened this season. Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis, who's currently day-to-day with a swollen elbow, need to play better than they've ever played. Clarence Weatherspoon and Maurice Taylor also need to deliver. And Cato needs to get his shoulder and his head back in the game. They can't continue to put the onus on Yao to go out there and beat Shaquille O'Neal by himself. That's not the way this works.

If the Rockets think they can come in and play well based on earlier meetings against the Lakers, they're in for a rude awakening. The key Rockets have no playoff experience. Francis, Mobley and the rest must rally together and play with pride and as a real team to make something happen against this Lakers squad. L.A., like all great championship teams, has little or no respect for its opposition. And despite the fact that Yao is at his absolute best against Shaq, the Lakers see the Rockets as a mere bump in the road towards their destination -- another championship.

Other observations

Picture this bright brown ball just spinning -- spinning free and dizzy with possibilities.

  • The list of injured players that will have a major impact on this year's NBA playoffs is staggering: Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin in New Jersey; Troy Hudson in Minnesota; Jamal Mashburn in New Orleans; Allan Houston in New York; Karl Malone, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Devon George and Horace Grant in L.A. and Chauncey Billups in Detroit. In a perfect world, each of these players would be healthy and ready to play. The nature of playoff basketball is that you have to play better and better every day for two solid months, and at the very end, you have to play better than you've ever played before to even have a chance to win the championship.

  • The most one-sided first round matchups will be Indiana vs. Boston, Detroit vs. Milwaukee and San Antonio vs. Memphis.

  • Miami's Lamar Odom will average a triple-double against two of the NBA's premier defensive forwards, George Lynch and P.J. Brown. Miami has a balanced offensive attack, whereas New Orleans relies too heavily on Baron Davis with Mashburn out. While Davis is normally a tremendous playoff performer, that's an unbearable load to carry when going head-to-head with Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones.

  • The Detroit Pistons will take care of business early so that they can be ready for the second-round matchup against New Jersey. The injuries to Kidd and Martin will be a major factor in the outcome of that second-round series.

  • The Indiana Pacers will also get right to it so that they will be fresh and rested for the Eastern Conference finals against the bloodied, battered, bruised and limping survivor of the Detroit-New Jersey series.

  • The Lakers will meet the NBA's smartest team, San Antonio, in the second round. The Spurs have established themselves as the most difficult hurdle in L.A.'s run to the title. Kobe Bryant's last two shots -- at the end of regulation and then at the buzzer of the second overtime -- against Portland could very well have done the Lakers a disservice. A loss to Portland would have put them in the same bracket with Dallas and Minnesota; neither of whom can beat the Lakers.

  • A panel discussion between Hunter S. Thompson and Bill Walton is being scheduled to discuss the all-Lakers, all-the-time world that we live in.

    Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.
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