The difference between Game Four and Game Five for the Lakers in their second-round series with Houston is like the difference between a grungy dive bar with sticky floors offering $2 Tecate in a can and the plush lobby watering hole of a five-star hotel known for it’s potent and pricey specialty martinis.
Finally, the Lakers came to play and came to play with a vengeance, dismantling the Rocket’s 118-78.
And the most important stat of the night was the fact that, after jumping out to a 25-point lead at halftime (thanks to 20 first-half points from Kobe Bryant and 11 points and 8 rebounds from Pau Gasol), the Lakers didn’t relent. Instead, unlike so many times this season and in these playoffs, they kept their foot pressed firmly to the throat of the undermanned Rockets and won the second half by 15.
Seven Lakers scored in double figures and the Purple and Gold played with a passion and poise so sorely lacking in their Game Four debacle.
In other welcome news for Lakerland, there was an Andrew Bynum sighting in Game Five, as the big fella finally decided to make an appearance in the playoffs, looking sharp with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and only two fouls in 20 minutes of action.
The defensive intensity was there as well, as the Lakers limited the Rockets open looks and forced Houston into 17 turnovers while collecting 12 steals.
This was one of those games you want to bottle and save for a future date, to be opened when the Lakers offer up the flip side of their Jekyll and Hyde act.
Which begs the question: which Lakers team will show up for Game 6 in Houston?
Contemplating the Lake Show enigma, after the jump…
Retribution. Dominance. Punishment. Putting one’s ass squarely on another’s face.
There’s no other way to describe what the Los Angeles Lakers inflicted upon the hapless Houston Rockets Tuesday night, though Laker fans might also call Game 5 “beautiful” and Rockets fans would probably add “discouraging.”
The 118-78 trouncing was basically over a few minutes in the second stanza, when the Lakers picked up where they left off in the first quarter, a closing 23-6 run capped by a buzzer-beating three-point shot from Jordan Farmar. By the time the first half had drawn to a merciful close, the Lakers had staked a 25-point lead that would further balloon over the final 24 minutes.
Are the Rockets ready to give up and succumb to the inevitable? Of course not.
By now we all know they’re the most resilient team to compete in these playoffs, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they pulled one more rabbit out of their hat Thursday night in Houston and forced a decisive Game 7 (which I guarantee the Lakers would win). Would I be surprised? Yes, now that the Lakers seem to have their shit together, but not shocked. The Rockets already blew out the Lakers at home once with their heavily depleted lineup, and given some adjustments and much better execution than we saw in Game 5, there’s no reason they can’t rise up and do it again.
Even if they do, however, the Rockets are doomed in this series. There’s no getting around it.
The Lakers finally exploited their gargantuan size advantage over the undersized Rockets, with Andrew Bynum scoring the team’s first 6 points and Pau Gasol damn near racking up a double-double just a few minutes into the second quarter with 9 points and 7 boards (he finished with 16 points, 13 boards, and 3 blocks).
Against a team starting a 6-6 center in Chuck Hayes–who got into early foul trouble and had an evening he’d like to soon forget–the storyline of this game was to be dictated both by how well Bynum and Gasol established themselves and how early the Lakers would be able to get Scola and Hayes worrying about fouls. With Yao and Dikembe Mutombo out of the equation, the only bigs available off the Houston bench are Carl Landry (a gamer, but still just 6-7) and Brian Cook (0-7, 7 boards, 3 turnovers in about 19:30 minutes).
Mission accomplished on both fronts for LA, who did yield 5 offensive boards in the game’s first 5 minutes, but tightened up and allowed only 11 more in the remaining 43. Expect them to closely follow this script again in Game 6; Houston head coach Rick Adelman and his players know this and will counterattack as best they can, but they just don’t have the size to counter.
Speaking of the first 5 minutes, the Rockets did come out with a quiet confidence. For a few minutes there, it looked like Hayes would be effective on the boards, like Aaron Brooks would again make Derek Fisher look every bit the 34-year-old veteran he is and take him to the hole at will, like Shane Battier might have another magical night from three-ball land in him.
That’s when the Rockets started laying more bricks than a fat kid makes return trips to an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. With their hopes clearly pinned on the three-point shot, Houston came up woefully short from both behind and in front of the arc, going an abyssmal 4-22 from the field in the second quarter and 3-15 on threes for the first half. When the final whistle had blown, Houston hit the showers having sunk just 36% of their shots and only 17% of their triple-tries (5-29, to be exact).
Credit the Lakers defense, who could afford to help each other out on the perimeter with little to worry about in the post. Point a finger at Ron Artest, who’s been brilliant at times during the Rockets’ postseason run but was terrible in Game 5 with just 9 points on 4-15 shooting (1-7 on triples), 4 boards, and 4 turnovers. And tip your hat to Phil Jackson, who had his team well-prepared and focused just two days after saying the Rockets deserved some fucking credit for the win.
On offense, the Lakers were unstoppable. They had only missed nine shots as a team as the second quarter began winding down and were 51% on the game. They were the aggressors, and as usual were rewarded for it to the tune of 36 free-throw attempts to Houston’s 16. That’s a gaping disparity that might have some Rockets loyalists howling “fix!”, but on this night, at least, there was nothing to debate about the officiating.
That leaves us with one team, the favored Los Angeles Lakers, who are once again refocused after responding to their second wakeup call in this series alone, and another, the underdog and overmatched Houston Rockets, who’ll have the home fans behind them but Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant towering above them, for Game 6 Thursday night. Both have legitimate shots at the win, but only one of them is ultimately doomed to a series defeat.
As you may have heard, next summer is when many of the NBA’s premier breadmakers will be up for bidding, which means it’s not an overly star-studded class of free agents this year, especially when you take those who are restricted out of the equation.
Ben Gordon, Carlos Boozer, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and Paul Millsap are a few of the marquee names on the unrestricted list; I’m not counting Kobe Bryant, who’ll opt out but almost definitely resign with the Lakers. Beyond the headliners, though, there are a few guys out there who won’t command big dollars or be considered cornerstones capable of helping turn a franchise around, but who can help contribute to a winning cause. We’ve profiled a few of the most notable players who fit that bill here.
In alphabetical order:
Chris Andersen, Forward/Center: Through the Nuggets’ first eight playoff games, the Birdman has averaged 7.7 points, 6.2 boards, and 2 blocks in about 22 minutes per; without his energy and toughness off the bench, the Nuggets’ path to their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1985 would have been much bumpier than it has been. With him in the lineup, I think they sweep the Mavericks. (Andersen missed Game 4 with a stomach flu.)
Two months ago I wrote about Andersen’s feel-good comeback season, and his strong play since then has done nothing to deter his value this summer. Expect the NBA’s Executive of the Year, Mark Warkentian, to get first crack at reupping Andersen to a modest 2-3 year deal, but there’s sure to be other suitors knocking on his door–the open market is most always kind to motivated big men who know their role (in Andersen’s case, defense and rebounding) and consistently fulfill it well.
Trevor Ariza, Forward: Now in his fifth NBA season, it’s hard to believe that Ariza will only turn 24 years old next month. He’s on the precipice of finally becoming a consistent, high-impact starter who does all the little things right and still has plenty of room to grow on offense. In many ways, Ariza reminds me of Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince (minus the latter’s pterodactyl wingspan): a glue player who’s comfortable in a supporting role but capable of stepping up when needed.
Health remains somewhat of a concern: this was the first time in his young career he’s been able to make it through an entire 82-game season. His potential, versatility, and experience playing alongside a cast of All-Stars in LA, however, will undoubtedly make him a hot commodity. Speaking of Detroit, don’t be surprised if the Pistons make a play for Ariza whether they trade Prince or not (and I think they’re going to at least try to); I also expect the Lakers to prioritize Ariza over Odom.
Matt Barnes, Forward: Barnes was up and down all season during his first (and probably only) year in Phoenix, but given the right situation, system, and coaching, I think he can be a steadier perimeter presence than we’ve seen since he started getting consistent minutes during the 2006-07 season in Golden State. Specifically, he needs to be reigned in as far as three-point shooting goes; it’s not that he can’t hit ‘em, but he’s a 33% career shooter from behind the arc and has no business launching over 4 attempts per like he did in Phoenix.
Is Barnes a starter? No. That’s why I think he’d be a perfect fit for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that’s clearly on the rise and would greatly benefit from having Barnes’ nagging man-defense, ability to run the floor, and veteran experience behind Kevin Durant. I love the potential matchup problems opponents could have dealing with a lanky second unit led by 6-8 Barnes at the three, 6-6 Kyle Weaver at the two, and 6-7 Shaun Livingston at the point.
More of 2009′s second tier-unrestricted free agents after the jump…
Shortly before Denver’s failed bid to complete a sweep of the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semis on Monday (ahem, late whistle) the Denver Post added a rather interesting, unsavory twist to the burgeoning rivalry. The Post’s Chris Dempsey reported that Mr. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, had been seated in the vicinity of Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin’s mother at Game Three. From The Post:
According to Cuban, a fan called the Nuggets “thugs” after Game 3 and he turned to Martin’s mother, Lydia Moore, and said, “That includes your son.” Martin’s agent, Brian Dyke, said Cuban told Martin’s mother “Your son is a punk.”
Your son is a punk. Classy.
Really, Mark? On the eve of Mother’s Day? It’s just an accusation at this point, but if true it represents a low point for the hyperactive billionaire owner and popular blogger.
Mr. Martin wasn’t pleased, to put it mildly. He promised to “take care of it,” among other things:
“I don’t feel I need to call his name in the media and all that, but it’s a little personal,” Martin said after the Nuggets shootaround today. “And I’m going to take care of it.”
. . .
“(Heck) yeah, don’t say nothing to my kids or my family,” Martin said. “If you got something to say, say it to me. But I’m going to take care of it. I’m not going to do the whole media thing, back and forth. That’s his thing. I’m more of a face-to-face type of dude.”
“So whenever the opportunity presents itself, then I will address it. But I got a game to go win. At some point I will, but I got a game to go win, first and foremost. So that’s my focus and concentration right now.”
You can hardly blame Martin for the strong words, he certainly believes he and his family have been affronted, although you have to wonder if the not-so-vaguely threatening remarks will draw some kind of action from the league office. You would hate to see Cuban actually getting under his skin and having a negative impact on the Nuggets’ playoff run, but suggesting you’re going to “take care of it” and are “more of a face-to-face type of dude” probably isn’t going to sit well with renowned fuddy duddy David Stern.
Martin’s play has been somewhat thuggish this postseason, but I have to say that I have no problem with it. This is playoff basketball, where aggressiveness, toughness, assertiveness and balls are to be rewarded. We have referees to make sure things don’t get out of hand and that rules transgressions are punished accordingly (even overzealously, in some cases). Let them do their job, they’ve been more than capable of taking care of it thus far. I also understand that Mr. Cuban is upset that his team hasn’t been able to display a lick of aggressiveness, toughness, assertiveness or balls. But leave the man’s mother alone. That’s out of line.
**UPDATE** And it appears that Mr. Cuban has, indeed, issued an apology to K-Mart and his mother on Blog Maverick. Of course, in true Cuban style, it doesn’t come without not one but two mentions of “when the series comes back to Dallas.” Guess he’s feeling pretty good about his team’s narrow two-point win Monday night to stave off elimination.
I was trying to fathom what kind of personal job performance would be equivalent to the Lakers atrocious play in their 99-87 Game 4 loss to the Yao-less Houston Rockets on Sunday afternoon.
This is a fun game that fine readers such as yourself can play along with at home. If you were going to give the kind of performance at your place of employment that the Lakers did on Sunday against the Rockets, what would it look like?
For me, it would be roughly equivalent to showing up to work two hours late, grossly hungover and still wearing the same clothes I was donning the day before (but now reeking of Don Julio), and then proceeding to carefully roll and spark a huge blunt which I smoke until I pass out underneath my desk, not awakening until 4:45pm; at which time I furiously send out two dozen emails before heading back to the bar at 5pm sharp (and yes, I’m talking directly to you in that last sentence, Mr. Pau “18 points in the meaningless 4th quarter” Gasol).
The thing is, regardless of your current occupation, I’m guessing that if you performed like the Lakers played on Sunday, you’d be fired.
Really. It was that bad. The Lakers were outrebounded 43-37 by a team starting a 6’6” center and allowed Aaron Brooks (34) and Battier (23) to both notch career-playoff highs in points.
The play of the game that epitomized the Lakers evening occurred at the end of the 3rd quarter when, with seven-tenths of a second left, Ron Artest inbounded a perfect lob to Aaron Brooks for a lay-up over Jordan Farmar, who was caught asleep on the play. Brooks basket made it 83-54 to end the 3rd quarter, the Rockets largest lead of the contest. Game effectively over.
The Lakers were basically caught sleeping from the opening tip, as the Rockets jumped out to a 29-16 first-quarter lead, led by Battier’s 12 points (3-3 from beyond the arc). The Rockets shot 55% to the Lakers 37%, and without Kobe’s 9 first-quarter points, the score would have been even uglier.
You kept expecting the Lakers to finally rouse themselves from their slumber, but with the exception of a spirited 4th quarter when things had long been decided the Lakers never looked like they wanted to be there – like they were ready for the intensity of playoff basketball.
I still can’t quite believe what I witnessed. I feel like I’m in a bit of shock, the reality of the giant egg that the Lakers laid in Game 4 not fully registering yet. As Denver and Cleveland play dominating basketball while cruising to 3-0 series leads, The Lake Show is getting its ass kicked by the Rockets’ JV team.
What the fuck?
In the last installment of this series I had questioned whether or not the Lakers possessed championship balls, but after this disturbing loss, the more pressing question is this:
The popular Postcards From LA series is back for a 2009 Lakers run at the NBA Championship. As long as the Los Angeles Lakers survive through the 2009 NBA playoffs, Empty the Bench’s West Coast correspondent Christopher Thell will be submitting a local fan’s take on his beloved Lakers’ postseason trials, tribulations and successes.
3 CommentsPosted by ETB Contributor on May. 11, 2009 at 6:00am in NBA
With all due respect to the other six squads still playing, there are only two teams that have a chance of raising the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy this year: the Cavaliers and the Nuggets. I’m not saying these two will definitely face off in June, but they’re the only two who have shown the consistency and hunger to be considered championship material. Let’s take a quick look at each series and why I’m jumping to this conclusion two rounds ahead of time.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Atlanta Hawks (Cleveland leads 3-0)
Remember how all those Bulls in the 90’s not named Jordan had one or two good skills that looked amazing when MJ was distracting the whole other team? Well, the Cavaliers are going through that right now. Players who were so-so outside shooters on other squads are now great on Cleveland (namely Mo Williams and Delonte West). Big men who are over-the-hill but still hustle are teaming up with Anderson Varejao to control the paint (Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas).
Everyone is busting their tails and putting together nice stretches of plays because the opponents are little more than front-row audience members to the LeBron James Show. LBJ has officially entered the Garnett stratosphere of superstars whose teammates absolutely love to follow and lay it out for. These types of players (e.g. Bird, Magic, Russell) do everything a team needs statistically and are also the on-court cheerleaders who won’t point fingers or let anyone hang his head after a bum play. This breed of player is far more rare than fans think.
Atlanta is the other team in this series.
Boston Celtics vs. Orlando Magic (tied 2-2)
Orlando is banking on two things in order to keep advancing: Dwight Howard putting up 15-and-15 each game and for the team to hit tons of 3’s, which has been the formula for success they’ve clung to all season long. Howard is getting his against the overmatched Boston frontcourt, but injured guards Jameer Nelson and Courtney Lee have been replaced by an inconsistent point guard who can’t shoot (Rafer Alston, 24% FG this series, 1-for-12 from deep) and J.J. Reddick, whose name alone is an NBA punchline.
With 6-10 forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu hanging out on the perimeter jacking treys (combined 31 attempts from deep), Boston is actually outrebounding Howard’s Magic 161-148. Orlando is far too inconsistent at everything to have a chance at the title.
The Celtics are playing without their heart and soul, Kevin Garnett, since he was lost for good in late-March (he hasn’t been a factor since mid-February) with knee trouble. Without him, the C’s barely scraped by a 41-41 Bulls squad in seven games and are a Big Baby buzzer-beater away from not even getting this much of a mention.
Zachariah Blott weighs in on Denver-Dallas and Houston-Los Angeles after the break…
Much like the NCAA Tournament, the NBA Playoffs are often a springboard for certain players to showcase their skills to fans and GM’s alike, hopefully landing themselves a lucrative contract. Here are three soon-to-be free agents who, with the world watching, are making the case for a much larger paycheck next season.
What He Brings: Ariza’s combination of speed, size (6-foot-8, 210 pounds), and determination allow him to be a great defender. Like Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier, he can guard almost any opponent and is regularly asked to track down guards or bang with the big boys down low.
Playing 24 minutes a game for the season, he had decent pers of 8.9 points, 4.3 boards, 1.8-1.1 assist-turnovers, 1.7 steals, and a .460 FG% which would be much better if he stopped shooting so many 3’s (.319). His combination of size and quickness make him a strong inside finisher (his .625 FG% around the rim ranks ahead of Dwight Howard’s .622, but that does include many fastbreak points). At 23 years of age, he’s also still extremely young.
[Ed. note: Say what you will about Isiah Thomas, he deserves all of it, but he also drafted some diamonds in the rough]
Playoffs: Ariza is starting over Lamar Odom and doing quite well. He is playing 32 minutes a night with 11.4 points, has 27 assists to only 14 turnovers, and has knocked down 15 of 29 triples. His defense is more valuable than his 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocks indicate.
Right Situation: He would do well on a team that needs intensity on defense but is not looking for a scorer. Atlanta and Portland both fit the description and have plenty of money to spend. Good luck finding Ariza in a Blazers’ uniform, though, after he wiped out Rudy Fernandez on a breakaway attempt in a March contest.
What He Brings: Wafer drives into the lane with authority and regularity, has a decent pull-up jumper, and can score in bunches. When he gets a chance to play more than just spot duty in a game, he’ll put up decent numbers; in 11 starts this season, Wafer averaged 16.4 points, .497 FG%, .385 3-pt FG%, and 1.4 steals. His decision making can be so-so when he’s not creating his own shot (1.1-0.9 assists-turnovers), but he’s only 23 years old.
Playoffs: Average NBA fans have suddenly become aware of Wafer’s spurty scoring ability in the playoffs. While sporting what Ron Artest calls a Von-hawk, he has hit his 3’s (7 of 16) and continues to be a menace to opponents by consistently getting into the lane.
Right Situation: Wafer should continue to be paired with other quick guards, creating bad match-ups for larger opponents. A fast-paced squad would like him. Indiana and Phoenix (if they’re actually going into rebuilding mode) could have the cash to add Wafer. I’m sure Houston would love to keep him, but the market may set a price a little higher than they can swing, especially if the Rockets re-sign Artest.
One more 2009 free agent-to-be stepping up, after the jump…
As the fourth quarter got underway in Los Angeles on Wednesday night I got a text from my dad, a lifelong Lakers fan. He’s been following the team since getting “Hot Rod” Hundley and Elgin Baylor’s autograph as a kid when they were the Minneapolis Lakers playing home games at the Minneapolis Armory and Minneapolis Auditorium. The text read, “Fisher game MVP.” I agreed.
Fisher’s jarring, clearly illegal shot to Houston power forward Luis Scola was precisely what the Lakers, and their fans, needed at that moment. The Rockets had bullied LA up and down the floor en route to a Game One win despite the Lakers more technically skilled roster. It had been a humiliating effort and experience for everybody not wearing red that night.
Los Angeles came out inspired on Wednesay, riding Kobe Bryant’s 13 points in the first eight minutes of action to an early lead. LA managed to drop an impressive 39 points in the first quarter on Houston’s sturdy, stingy D. It looked like the dominant Lake Show fans have come to know over the last two seasons was back in form.
Derek Fisher Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Houston wasn’t ready to lay down for the higher seed or the bigger names, though, and they weren’t going to wilt under the bright lights. They pushed back. Hard. Los Angeles wasn’t ready for it. The score was tied 57-57 at the half, and I was impressed with Rick Adelman’s squad. This was playoff basketball as it was supposed to be. Physical. Aggressive. Spirited. One team pushes, the other pushes back, and nobody backs down. A test of not just talents, but wills. In the second and third quarter, like Game One, it looked like Ron Artest and the Houston Rockets were the team of superior will. They were certainly the more physically imposing team, grinding harder on the glass, banging more on the perimeter, hitting the deck with more vigor, chasing loose balls with greater alacrity, running through people with more abandon and setting meaner picks.
LA was playing soft and scared. They were playing like it was the regular season and they could simply turn it on at any point. They were playing like they did in Game One.
Then Fisher decided enough was enough. This isn’t the regular season, it’s the playoffs, and if you let a team exert themselves over you in the toughness department you’ll soon be enjoying the offseason. So Fish waited for his moment, and as Scola was about to set a back pick on him at the top of the key he turned and blew Scola up. All 6’1″ and 205 lbs. of Fish slammed into the 6’9″, 235 lbs. big man. Scola hit the deck, Fisher’s head started bleeding, and the refs convened. Clearly, it was a foul. Probably a flagrant foul – although it’s rare for a point running through a PF’s pick, even vehemently, to generate that much attention when neither fists nor testicles are involved.
To see Fisher tossed from the game was a shock. Both teams had been playing aggressive basketball, and while illegal, this wasn’t a particularly unusual play. Phil Jackson was livid. I was confused. This was simply not an uncommon occurrence in a heated, rough playoff series. I was also slightly embarrassed, wondering what 80s and 90s NBA fans and players were thinking of our current product. Then I remembered Joey Crawford was calling the game, shook my head, and moved on.
To learn on Thursday that Fisher had also been suspended for Game Three was mind boggling. For running through a pick? Are you serious? How sanitized and anesthetized has David Stern’s NBA become? The brawl at The Palace was a terrible thing, but can we finally take the kid gloves off again? While I will admit to having a personal preference for the Lakers, I also simply don’t think this is good for the NBA or for the series. Basketball fans, and not just those residing in Houston and Los Angeles, were just starting to enjoy an extremely physical, heated, emotional and compelling series that promised to be the best of the postseason so far, ultimately meaningless Boston-Chicago overtime dramatics be damned.
What the suspension means tonight, after the jump…
- BallHype – You gotta love Ron “Snake Eggs” Artest’s, um, enthusiasm.
- Detroit 4 Lyfe – Might Artest be a natural fit for the Detroit Pistons?
- Celtics Blog – In awe of Rajon Rondo’s Game 2 triple-double against the Magic.
- Ball Don’t Lie – What the heck was Rafer Alston thinking?
- Star-Telegram – And what the f**k is Dirk Nowitzki and/or his stalker thinking?
- NY Post – For perhaps the first time in history, the case for Starbury as victim.
- No Guts, No Glory – The many ‘doos of TNT’s Cheryl Miller.
- Truth About It – Oh, Eduardo: you are sorely missed in these 2009 NBA Playoffs.
- Waiting for Next Year – A man/rapper named A. Gully drives around a Witness-mobile.
- Binary Basketball – He’s a chubby sonofabitch, but Big Baby has been effective.
- The Hoops Doctors – Is Aaron Brooks the Rockets’ x-factor?
- Raptors Republic – You know you want to read about Jason Kapono.
- LinkedOnSports – The NBA All-Obnoxious Team doesn’t include Shaq? Recount!
- Andy Katz Blog – Very little has been determined about the 2009 NBA Draft.
- Randball – Bill Simmons as T-Wolves GM? Sure, why not–can’t get any worse than McHale.
You can always tell Phil doesn’t like being distracted on the sidelines, especially during an extremely close and important game – and especially not by a man in a Bozo the Clown suit. I’m just glad somebody was up on the YouTubes with this one, Jackson had me chuckling (and the TNT crew) for a minute with this exchange last night …