Sunday, May 3, 2009

Top-seeded Lakers aim to make T-Mac's prediction come true


Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Not too long ago, a debate raged on whether Tracy McGrady or Kobe Bryant was the better player. Too bad that this season has made that thought seem like ancient history. Bryant backed up his MVP campaign by leading the Lakers on a 65-win regular-season romp. McGrady averaged just 15.6 points on 38.8 percent shooting in 35 games for the Rockets before a knee injury caused him to shut it down.

While Bryant averaged 27.4 points in dismissing the Jazz in the first round of the Playoffs, the only points McGrady has scored this postseason have been in the candor department. In a radio interview, he predicted the Lakers would win the championship. It's bad enough that for the first time in T-Mac's 12-year career his team made it to the second round with him in street clothes. It's even worse that he already publicly picked his team to lose.


Ron Artest's Game vs. Ron Artest's Mouth: The 6-foot-7, 260-pound forward averaged 15.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and a steal a game in the first round and scored 27 points in the clinching Game 6, but it was the comment he made after Game 5 that could have lasting impact on Houston's series with Los Angeles.

"[Brandon] Roy is the best player I've played against," Artest told TNT's Craig Sager. When Sager asked Artest to clarify his statement, reminding him that he has gone up against the likes of Bryant and LeBron James, Artest only reiterated his claim.

Earlier in the season, Artest's trash talking came back to bite him when he called Bryant "the worst player in the world" in their March 11 game in which Kobe scored 18 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter to lift the Lakers to a road win over the Rockets. While McGrady's comment might have supported L.A., don't think for a minute that Bryant will let Artest's slight slide without using it for extra motivation.

Behind the Numbers

82.0 and 42.9 -- Portland's points per game and shooting percentage in Houston's four wins in the first round. The Rockets will have to ratchet up their defensive efforts to that level if they hope to have success in the second round. The Lakers averaged 103.0 points on 48.2 percent shooting in their four-game regular-season series sweep of Houston.

Five Big Questions

1. Will Yao dominate?

Yao finally got out of the first round for the first time in his seven-year career, but he did it by averaging just 15.8 points and 10.3 rebounds and came up particularly small for a 7-foot-6 guy in Games 2 and 3, totaling just 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting as Portland sandwiched him in the post.

Fortunately for the Rockets, their center's struggles were miniscule compared to the ugly effort the Lakers' Andrew Bynum had against Utah. Bynum averaged 17.3 points and 5.5 rebounds when he came back from a knee injury for the final four games of the regular season, but in the five games against the Jazz, those numbers dwindled to just 5.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.2 fouls (and an even more abysmal 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in just 8.7 minutes in Games 3-5).

Benched for the last two games of the first round, the 7-foot Bynum will return to the starting lineup and says he looks forward to it. "Now we got a big guy out there and I'm going to have to play," Bynum said.

2. Can L.A. protect its leads?

The Lakers won't just be playing the Rockets this series, they'll be playing themselves. After losing double-digit leads against Utah, L.A. must rectify the problem on its own.

"We have to give a better effort," Bryant said. "That second unit comes in there and we have to give a better effort defensively -- running back on defense, not giving up easy baskets, stuff like that. We have to continue and keep up with the hustle."

One thing L.A. has going for it if it does end up relinquishing leads is its closing ability against Houston. The Lakers outscored the Rockets by an average of 11.8 points in the fourth quarter in their four meetings this year.

3. How will the long layoff affect the Lakers?

By the time Game 1 tips off on Monday (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT), the Lakers will have had a full six days without a game, while the Rockets will have had just three. While the time off can be a boon for players trying to heal minor injuries (i.e. Luke Walton's ankle), it's also an invitation for rust to settle in. Theoretically, the last team to clinch a spot in a series -- in this case, Houston -- will be sharper because it doesn't lose the rhythm of playing quite as much. Then again, the Rockets don't get as much time to mend (i.e. Von Wafer's back). "[Our] legs will be renewed, so to speak, but you suffer one way or another in this situation," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

4. Who can stop Aaron Brooks?

Much of the speculation before the Lakers-Jazz series centered on how L.A. planned to stop all-world point guard Deron Williams. The Lakers might face as perplexing of a problem in Houston's Brooks. The 6-foot-1, 161-pound Brooks averaged 15.3 points and 4.3 assists in the first round on 44.7 percent shooting, and 44.8 percent from three. Against Williams, the Lakers spelled 34-year-old Derek Fisher with the strong-bodied Shannon Brown. Don't be shocked if Jackson turns to Jordan Farmar against Brooks to match quickness with quickness, even if Farmar only averaged a point and four minutes in just two games against Utah.

5. What's the more important matchup -- Battier vs. Bryant or Gasol vs. Scola?

Michael Lewis might have made news earlier in the season when he wrote that Shane Battier is a "No-Stats All-Star" for his defense on premier players like Bryant, but the duo that could really sway the series are the "No-Razor All-Stars" in Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Luis Scola of the Rockets. Scola was Houston's leading scorer against Portland, averaging 16.2 points on 56.9 percent shooting to go with 6.7 rebounds per game. Gasol put up 18.4 and 9.0 rebounds on 58.6 percent shooting against Utah, but looked lost against Carlos Boozer at times on defense, never finding the balance between contesting Boozer's midrange shot while battling him down low. Scola plays the same inside-outside game and will have to consistently hit the 15-footer to keep L.A from packing the lane on Yao with Bynum and Gasol.


Lakers in 5. If Los Angeles really can improve with every round like Jackson is challenging his team to do, then Houston shouldn't pose a real threat. Yao knows how hard it is to get out of the first round. It will be even harder for him to get out of the second.

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Bradpetehoops said...

Yao dominated in game 1.