When the dust settled, the Houston Rockets were the only lower-seeded team to advance in the first round of the playoffs. It's hard to describe a No. 5 seed that was one win away from a division title as a Cinderella story, but the Rockets will earn that description if they can pull off the upset against an L.A. Lakers squad that cruised through their series win over the Utah Jazz largely on autopilot.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Lakers Offensive Rating: 114.5 (3rd NBA) Regular Season, 115.7 (2nd) Playoffs
Rockets Defensive Rating: 105.6 (4th) Regular Season, 107.3 (8th) Playoffs
Kobe Bryant vs. Shane Battier: As seen in the New York Times! An in-depth look at the subject confirmed that Bryant struggled against Battier during the latter's first two seasons with the Rockets, but two funny things happened after the publication of Michael Lewis' manifesto. First, Rick Adelman actually used his other defensive stopper (Ron Artest) on Bryant more than Battier in the subsequent two matchups. Second, Bryant played much better against both defenders, either taking the criticism to heart or using it as motivation. He had a monster game, efficiently, on March 11 in Houston, scoring 37 points on 28 shooting possessions. On April 3 at the STAPLES Center, Bryant was content to step back in the offense and attempt just 11 shots, making seven of them in scoring 20 points.
No matter the results, Bryant against the Rockets' stoppers is surely the marquee matchup in this series. What makes the Artest/Battier combination so historically unique is not just the presence of two elite perimeter defenders but also their contrasting styles. Artest is all about strength. Battier is the practitioner of technique who is capable of contesting shots without sending his opponent to the free-throw line. Both players will get their chances to defend Bryant in this series.
Of course, a Lakers offense that was the league's second-best in the first round of the playoffs and ranked third over the course of the season goes far beyond Bryant. An argument could be made that because of his ability to operate the triangle offense from the post, Pau Gasol has become 1A to Bryant in terms of importance. When he's at center in this series, Gasol faces an interesting matchup with Yao Ming. Yao's size makes the low post a worse option for Gasol and puts him in the high post, where he can shoot or look to drive. The Lakers might also look to involve Yao in pick-and-rolls and use this action with Gasol more than usual.
Lamar Odom is coming off of a terrific first-round series, averaging 17.8 points and 11.0 rebounds and shooting 62.7 percent against Utah. Houston's Luis Scola is a capable defender yet hardly a stopper, and he may spend more time on the perimeter against Odom than he would prefer. The Lakers also got a strong effort against the Jazz from Trevor Ariza, who made 11 of his 18 three-point attempts and shot 61.1 percent from the field. The Rockets will have to concede something defensively, and open three-point looks for Ariza may be that sacrifice--along the lines of the looks that were there for Portland small forwards but rarely converted in that series.
The player the Lakers would like to get going is Sasha Vujacic, who was ice cold in the first round, shooting 33.3 percent from deep but improbably missing all 11 of his attempts inside the arc. Vujacic's role off the bench takes on added importance in the absence of Luke Walton, who is expected to miss Game One after injuring his ankle in the first-round series. Speaking of the bench, while this is becoming repetitive, the Lakers figure to feast when Houston is forced to go to the undersized frontcourt of Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry, who give up significant length any of the Lakers' post duos.
WHEN THE ROCKETS HAS THE BALL
Rockets Offensive Rating: 109.7 (16th) Regular Season, 110.7 (8th) Playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 106.1 (5th) Regular Season, 106.0 (5th) Playoffs
The big question mark here is Andrew Bynum. While the Lakers are perfectly capable of defending Yao without Bynum, having the seven-footer as an integral part of the frontcourt rotation makes that task much easier. Bynum had a lost series against Utah, averaging just 15.4 minutes per game and struggling with foul trouble. Like Greg Oden in the first round, Bynum may be a foul magnet as he battles Yao in the post. Still, the Lakers need him if only to offer Gasol and Odom a chance to rest.
The Lakers have had success defensively against Yao by doubling to get the ball out of his hands. He shot the ball decently in the head-to-head series, making 53.8 percent of his attempts, but scored no more than 19 points in any of the four games because his shots were limited. The Lakers were able to offer the extra attention without giving up the open shots to Luis Scola or second chances that doomed the Blazers in their matchup with Houston.
As he always is, Artest is a wild card in this series. He had two dismal outings against the Lakers this season, shooting a combined 6-for-27 with eight turnovers in those games. Artest did put together a solid 21-point effort in the last matchup. In general, the more involved Artest is in the Rockets' offense, the better for opponents. Of course, that can blow up on a team, as it did for Portland in Game Six. Ariza gives up strength to Artest, but that's true of most small forwards in the league, and Ariza has the length and lateral quickness to limit Artest to low-percentage looks from the perimeter.
Aaron Brooks may have the more favorable matchup for the Rockets. Brooks cooled after his torrid start to the postseason, still finishing at 15.3 points per game against the Blazers. Defending point guards has been a weak spot for the Lakers this season, though Brooks will find more resistance in the paint after beating his man off the dribble then he did in the first round. The bigger Shannon Brown isn't quite the natural matchup off the bench that he was in the first round to body up Deron Williams, but remains the Lakers' best defensive option against Brooks. If he's hitting from the outside like he was against Utah, Phil Jackson can keep Brown out there in place of Derek Fisher to take advantage of his D.
As for Scola, he finds himself up against plenty of length with either Odom or Gasol on the other side. The latter matchup of two international stars figures to be especially entertaining, with no shortage of overacting on both sides. Scola will get chances to make the weak-side jumper, though not with as much time and as little duress as against Portland.
Von Wafer came up with a big series for the Rockets in the first round, averaging 9.2 points on 45.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Wafer figures to match up with Vujacic when the second units are in the game in a clash of emotional players.
Houston might be the second-best team in the Western Conference, but the Lakers still had to be thrilled when the Rockets knocked off the Blazers because Houston is the better matchup. Even if Houston's stoppers are able to bottle up Bryant, the Lakers have enough firepower to outscore the Rockets' middling offense. Thanks to the Bryant shot that Lewis used as the finale to his Battier piece, the Lakers swept the season series. In the last eight years, every team that has swept against an opponent within the conference has gone on to win the series. There's no reason to expect that to change here.
The one major concern for the Lakers is overconfidence. To that extent, Portland might actually have been a better opponent because they have the Lakers' respect in a way the Rockets might not. Too often in the first round, the Lakers coasted and let Utah back into games that should have been over. There's less margin for error with this Houston squad, certainly, and the Lakers can't afford to pace themselves. Barring that, the Lakers should be able to hold serve at home and steal a game at the Toyota Center to return to the Western Conference Finals.
Lakers in five.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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