Game 2 was not just another playoff game. Aside from the Boston-Chicago series (a.k.a., "best series ever"), this was one of the more talked about games of the playoffs, to date. But then, anything controversial involving the Lakers always is, isn't it? And half the time, it's going to involve The Bulldog.
Tied at one game apiece, the series now shifts to Houston. The Lakers need to take one in Texas to reclaim home court advantage, and it would be much better if it were this one. Here are a few things to watch for in Game 3.
The Lakers had no answer for the Rockets' big man in Game 1, who dominated on the way to a Rockets win in the series opener. But in Game 2, L.A. effectively neutralized Yao, who was on the bench with foul trouble for much of the game, and ineffective when he was on the court. Can the Lakers recreate Yao's limited impact for Game 3?
Always a factor on defense, Artest has been surprisingly (perhaps even shockingly) efficient on the offensive end in not one, but both games of this series so far. In fact, one could certainly make the case that he is what has made Houston such a tough challenge for Los Angeles. Can he continue to drain tough shots, regardless of how impossible they seem? Can he continue his hot shooting from beyond the three-point arc?
If your answer is, "No, he's going to come back down to earth," (i.e., "cool down" or "regress to the mean," depending on how you see it) then that poses other questions. When his shots aren't falling like they have in the first two games, will he recognize and adjust, or keep jacking up shots? And, if Artest isn't making shots the way he has in the last couple games, do the Rockets have a chance?
Of course, there's always the Crazy Factor. "Crazy Pills" was pretty crazy last game. Has he cooled down, or will he be looking for revenge in the next game? This is not one, but two games in which it has been clear that getting into it with Kobe Bryant is not a good idea. Will he get that message?
The Rockets' little man lit the Lakers up in Game 1, but much like Yao, was fairly ineffectual in Game 2. Have the Lakers figured him out, or did he just have an off game? Offensively, he wasn't terribly efficient in either game, nor did he rack up a lot of assists. But in Game 1, his penetration into the paint gave the Lakers fits. Can Shannon "UPS Air" Brown and Jordan Farmar funnel him into the help, instead of letting him into the paint?
Good Defense Versus Better Offense
This has been the theme of this series. What may surprise you is that it has worked for Houston just as well as it has for L.A. So far, the Lakers' defense has really pleased me — but guys like Artest have just continuously knocked down very difficult shots, and when the Lakers have dared the role players to beat them, often times they have. In particular, that was the case in Game 1.
In Game 2, the Rockets' defense was what it has been all year: tough, and driven by maximum effort. But it didn't matter. The
Kobes Lakers shot over 80% in the first quarter, and were generally unstoppable for most of the Game.
Assuming both of these teams continue to play high level defense, will we start to see some misses, or is Jeff Van Gundy's maxim to reign supreme in this series? And if we do see some defense that is not only good, but also effective, who does that favor?
The Point Guard Situation
When Derek Fisher knocked Scola on his ass, I wasn't sure what the effect of the game would be. Would the 3-point gain made by the Rockets on that play come back to bite us? Or would Fish's statement galvanize the team, causing them to play with an edge and inspiring them to take charge of the ball game? It could have gone either way. Fortunately, it was unquestionably the latter. It was exactly what the Lakers needed — for the game, and perhaps going forward, as well.
The rest of the league will call you dirty, Derek, but not us. We salute you.
Of course, the resulting suspension takes Fisher out of the lineup for tonight's game, leaving us with Farmar and UPS Air at the point. Can Brown continue his gritty, heady, energetic play on the road? And Farmar: He was effective against Brooks defensively, because of his speed and quickness, but will he be a liability offensively? Can some solid playoff minutes help him to break out of his slump?
Chippy Play and Mind Games
As I have written in the past, chippy play favors the Lakers. Why? Because most players in the NBA play worse when they are frustrated, exasperated, or angry. Kobe Bryant plays better — and as a result, so does his team. A continuation of the hard fouls, trash talking, and heated attitudes favors the Lakers, who are likely to elevate their games behind Kobe. On the other hand, when the Rockets became focused on the fouls at the end of Game 2, exasperated, frustrated, and angry, they imploded. One could certainly argue that carrying the spirit of the second half of Game 2 into tonight's game would favor the Lakers.
Pace, Pace, Pace
On the other hand, the Lakers excel against the Rockets when they get out and run. They're fairly young, and have plenty of energy, and as long as Sasha Vujacic isn't running the break, it's easy points for L.A. Houston, meanwhile, doesn't have the kind of energy L.A. has (at least, not when it comes to a foot race), and Yao Ming in particular will wear down and tire in a fast paced game. This is even more true given the on-off-on-off nature of the series schedule, which gives very little down time in between games for recuperation. Running Houston into the ground benefits us not only tonight, but also in the next game, as they will tire more as the series goes on.
But if the Lakers try and reproduce the atmosphere from the second half of Game 2, the inevitable result is a very high foul count, and that tends to slow the game way down, potentially creating the kind of grind-it-out game the Lakers would rather avoid against this team. So which style provides a greater edge for the Lakers? Chippy, or speedy?
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom
In Game 1, Gasol and Odom were no-shows. In Game 2, they came to play, especially Gasol. Pau used his quickness against Yao, who couldn't keep up. When he wasn't running or spinning around Yao layups and dunks, or running the floor on the break, he was back to hitting that free throw line extended jumpshot. Defensively, he didn't bully Yao, but he wasn't letting himself be bullied around anymore, either. In short, on Wednesday Pau acted once again like the player who is fed up with the "soft" label, and out to prove his toughness to the world. This is the Pau Gasol that the Lakers will need tonight.
Does Kobe Have to Do Everything?
This has become a theme of the playoffs. That super-good, ultra-deep team from the end of last year (excluding the Finals) and the beginning of this year? Who knows where they went. As we go further into the playoffs, this team looks more and more like the old teams that relied on Kobe to do everything on the offensive end — and then sat around and watched when he did.
Can the bench turn in a performance worthy of the "Bench Mob" and "best bench in the league" labels they boasted not too long ago? Can Odom, Gasol, Farmar/Brown, and Ariza create some shots for themselves or each other?
Is This Team Awake Yet?
As I wrote recently, this team isn't going to suddenly wake up and start playing like the champions we saw glimpses of against Boston and Cleveland in the regular season. When you've gotten by winning on talent for as long as they have, such a thoroughly ingrained bad habit is going to be hard to break.
The frustrating tendencies to give up big leads against Utah was a start. The terrible Game 3 loss pushed them a little further. The shocking loss to open this series was a huge kick in the pants. Is it enough to have these Lakers playing with heart, energy, effort, and intensity, on both ends of the court? Do they fully, truly understand that this year's championship will be won with effort, not with talent? Or is that a message that they pay lip service to, but that still hasn't fully sunk in yet?
For my part, I hope we'll finally see a motivated Lakers team, playing with effort on both ends of the court, and expecting to have to work for their wins, rather than coasting to them. But let's just say that I wouldn't put any money on it, yet. They may have a few lessons to learn, yet, before they truly become that team that is clicking on all cylinders, playing at that level they have the potential to reach where no one stands a chance against them.
As we've said before, the Lakers biggest enemy is themselves, and I'm not convinced they've overcome themselves yet.
The Playoffs Are Here!
One thing is certain: After a fairly uninteresting first round (covering that series had its dull moments), the playoffs are finally here. This is the big stage, the real deal. No pulled punches here. It's all or nothing, with everything to lose. This is where it gets fun, and this is what we've been waiting for all season long. Enjoy it! Soak it up! It just wouldn't be as much fun if it was a walk in the park!
And of course, a win tonight would make these playoffs even more enjoyable.
That's what I see for tonight's Game 3. How about you? What are your keys to the game, what do you want to see out of the Lakers, and what do you actually expect? Weigh in below, and be looking for the GameThread, which starts with the commencement of the Celtics-Magic game in just a few minutes.