Houston 99, L.A. Lakers 87 (Series tied 2-2)
Offensive Ratings: Houston 116.1, L.A. Lakers 104.3
It may happen, depending on how this series ultimately plays out, that Game Four between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers is lost to history. Those of us who devoted part of our Mother's Day to the game, however, are unlikely to ever again see anything quite like it. With Yao Ming sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot, the Rockets were written off in all quarters, including this one. Any Houston victory would have been an upset, but to lead the Western Conference's top team by 18 at the half and by 29 through three quarters is borderline miraculous.
Every Rockets player deserves credit, but the MVP of this game had to be Shane Battier. Who expected that he would outscore Kobe Bryant? In addition to chasing Bryant around and giving his usual effort at the defensive end, Battier was on fire from beyond the arc in the first half, draining four threes by halftime and five in the game to score 23 points, his highest-scoring outing since February 2007.
Battier's unexpected contribution helped get Houston's offense going while the team played lockdown defense at the other end, holding the Lakers to 54 points through three quarters. Matching up against the two best offensive teams to make the playoffs, the Rockets have had any number of great defensive stretches, but this might have been their most dominant. Needing a run to get back in the game, the Lakers had four points on nine possessions in a span of more than six minutes to start the third quarter.
With Bryant quiet and role players Trevor Ariza, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom completely invisible (they combined for nine points on 4-for-12 shooting), Pau Gasol was the only outlet for offense, and most of his 30 points came with the game already long decided. That and a flurry of three-pointers helped make the final score and the statistics more respectable, but that shouldn't take away whatsoever from what Houston did defensively. With no player over 6'9" on the floor, the Rockets played phenomenal team defense. Everyone knows about Battier and Ron Artest, but Hayes--who at a listed 6'6" gives up a half a foot to Gasol--is starting to get the attention he deserves as well. A lot of credit also has to go to Rick Adelman, who has never been noted for the fact that his teams have generally been pretty good on defense in addition to great on offense.
While Phil Jackson pointedly talked after the game about how well Houston played, he certainly has some concerns heading back to L.A. With Bryant's Game Two explosion against Battier looking increasingly like fool's gold that Bryant will struggle to repeat on a regular basis, the Lakers must get the production from the role players that was missing yesterday. That effort may be compromised by Odom hurting his back when he came down hard while charging into Battier during the third quarter. The Lakers badly need Odom, since Andrew Bynum continues to be a nonentity in this series.
Jackson may also have to face a difficult decision about Fisher. The Lakers' best performance in this series came with Fisher suspended for Game Three, and Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown both outplayed Fisher off the bench in Game Four. At the other end, Fisher was torched by Aaron Brooks, who had the game of his life. Running a series of high pick-and-rolls as the Rockets adjusted their offense without Yao in the post, Brooks got too deep into the Lakers defense. He also knocked down four three-pointers as part of a 34-point game that was Brooks' highest-scoring as a professional, playoffs or regular season. Farmar and Brown are better equipped to slow Brooks, as they did Friday. Will Fisher see his minutes cut in Game Five?
In a game that was defined by its surprises, perhaps the biggest shocker was how well the Houston offense operated despite a dismal game from Ron Artest, who shot 4-for-19 from the field and missed all six of his three-point attempts. Artest's ability to create did open things up for his teammates when he looked to them, and he led the Rockets with six assists. Better efforts from Artest can help offset the inevitable regressions from Battier and Brooks, who will be hard-pressed to duplicate how well they played yesterday.
We've seen instances where teams can briefly rally without their star player for a big effort, only to have a tough time keeping up that level of effort. However, if I've learned anything in this playoffs, it's not to doubt the Houston Rockets. That's a mistake I'm not going to make again.
Boston 95, Orlando 94 (Series tied 2-2)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 112.6, Orlando 104.9
Games like this are what make any playoff format, even the NBA's best-of-seven, so difficult. As Glen Davis rose to shoot the deciding jumper with time running out, both the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic had played well enough to win. Alas, only one of them could leave with the victory, and the outcome--riding on that single shot--could go a long ways in deciding this series. The difference between the Celtics heading home tied at 2-2 or down 3-1 is enormous. According to WhoWins.com, teams in the latter scenario (excluding the NBA Finals and its 2-3-2 format) have won six out of 47 series, a 12.8 percent rate. Instead, with Davis's shot splashing through, Boston regained home-court advantage and is again (mathematically) the favorite in this series. That's potentially the difference between winning and losing a series.
Of course, there was plenty that played out over the previous 47 minutes and 49 seconds before the final possession. ESPN.com's John Hollinger wrote Monday about Orlando's ability to win even when its three-pointers weren't falling, and the Magic came ever so close to proving that true in dramatic fashion. Orlando was a dismal 5-for-27 from beyond the arc, the sixth time all season the Magic has failed to hit 20 percent of its three attempts. Nobody could find the mark; J.J. Redick missed all five of his tries, Mickael Pietrus was 1-for-5 and Rafer Alston 1-for-6.
From an academic perspective, it's impressive how well Orlando played even without the three going. From a fan's perspective, it must have been agonizing watching the Magic continue to hoist three after three. The looks weren't bad per se, but Orlando was able to get to the free-throw line 28 times when it got the ball inside. Besides Dwight Howard (23 points and 17 rebounds), that meant more post-ups for Rashard Lewis, who had 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting despite the Celtics doing a better job of taking away the looks that opened up for the Magic's centers in Game Three when the help defender came to double Lewis.
Who scored the last four points for Orlando? It was Howard and Lewis, both of them drawing fouls and making two free throws. In between, the Magic went to Hedo Turkoglu. While Turkoglu is "Mr. Fourth Quarter" and has come up with big shots time and again, he did not have it on this night, missing a pair of long three-pointers in the final minute as part of a 4-for-14 shooting effort.
On the other side, there was a similar disparity between reputation and results, albeit in large part because of the defensive attention Orlando paid to Paul Pierce after he was unstoppable much of the night, piling up 27 points on 9-for-15 shooting. But when Pierce returned after sitting down with five fouls, the Boston offense stagnated. The Celtics had scored just once in their last five possessions when he checked in, and were identically inefficient over the next five, Pierce finishing the fourth quarter scoreless.
Up stepped Davis, who knocked down a jumper with 32 seconds left to give Boston the lead and then found the ball on his hands for the biggest shot of the season after Orlando sent two defenders after Pierce on a pick-and-roll. That play was the Celtics' second option for the final shot after Ray Allen was unable to work free on the other side of the court. Pierce made the smart play (though it would have been interesting to hear the response had Davis missed), and all of Davis' work improving his range this season paid off in an enormous way.
Boston managed to overcome its own rough shooting night--1-for-10 from three-point range, including five misses in as many attempts for Allen, still fighting a shooting slump. The Magic made stopping Eddie House a priority, with Courtney Lee shadowing House around the court most of the night and limiting him to just one shot attempt in 17 minutes and zero points. Still, the Celtics shot a sizzling 52.8 percent from the field. In addition to Pierce and Davis, Rajon Rondo was the biggest driver of that shooting, hitting eight of 15 shots for 21 points to go along with 14 rebounds.
On the Orlando side, the interesting strategic decision for Stan Van Gundy is at point guard. Down the stretch, the Magic went with Turkoglu as their de facto point and had Lee in the game to defend Rondo. That was the pairing that was so successful for Orlando in Game Three, and with Alston playing poorly in this series (five points and two assists on 1-for-7 shooting in 27 minutes last night), I'd expect to see more of it in Game Five. One way or another, it would be a shame for Lee to see just 23 minutes of action again. Assuming there aren't lingering medical issues, his play at both ends demands he be on the floor, if not in place of Alston then for Redick, who was unable to find his shot last night, at shooting guard.
The Magic also can't forget about Lewis, their most consistently successful offensive option besides Howard in this series. Lewis used just two possessions in the final six minutes, and that's not enough given the matchup problems he creates for the Celtics.
Boston should be excited, but can't feel comfortable. After all, had Davis missed, the Celtics would be contemplating their playoff mortality. After the game, TNT's excellent David Aldridge asked Davis about taking momentum back home, but the question was a little odd given the anti-momentum in this series so far, with the two teams alternating wins and losses. Orlando has proven it can win at the TD Banknorth Garden, and nobody should be surprised to see that happen in Game Five.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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