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Preview: Lakers @ Rockets, Game 4

By now, you have heard the news that matters most to this series: Yao Ming is out for the remainder of the playoffs. He was initially diagnosed with a broken foot that would require surgery, but has since been further diagnosed with a stress fracture that will not require surgery. Recovery time should be eight to ten weeks — far too late to help the Rockets against the Lakers.

Lakers fans should be almost as disappointed as Rockets fans. For the Rockets, this essentially means and end to their post-season aspirations — and while they were far from favorites, with Yao they were long-shot contenders. Without him, they will be stepping stones. There are few things worse, as a fan, than seeing your star player, on whom your team's success hinges, go down for the season.

For Lakers fans, this simply isn't how we'd hoped to win the series. We had certainly hoped to win it, of course, and obviously this makes that infinitely more likely, but there can be little gratification in that fact. We wanted to beat the Rockets because we're better, not because they got hurt.

Before we look further into tonight's game, let's take a moment to show respect to Yao Ming. The man has become a beast in the paint. He is a force to be reckoned with; ignore him at your peril. In most cases, he simply is not one of those players about whom teams can say, "We're okay with Yao getting his, so long as..." He demands the double team, punishing you if you don't bring it, and finding open teammates when you do. Matching up with him has truly become a difficult problem, and one that teams are forced to solve before they can advance.

Yao's toughness is remarkable — when the Rockets staff wanted to bench him and treat his leg, he literally refused to acknowledge them, insisting to be on the floor while even the faintest shred of hope remained. Under the same circumstances, 99 NBA players out of 100 would have exited the game and gotten treatment. He showed physical toughness in both of the last two games, and while we hope it didn't worsen his injury and further delay his eventual return to basketball, we salute him for it.

More on Game 4 between the Lakers and the remaining Rockets after the jump...

Fortune has not been kind to the Rockets, this year. First, they lost Tracy McGrady, who was never really healthy in the first place. Then, they lost Dikembe Mutombo, forever. Now, Yao Ming. They have little size and less superstar talent left with which to fight against the Lakers, who have excesses of both.

Size, clearly, becomes a huge factor in this series. Carl Landry and Luis Scola are both listed at 6'9", but against the Lakers seven-footers (not to mention the 6'10" Lamar Odom), they stand little chance. L.A. will go inside early and often, looking to exploit the size advantage inside, and they're likely to have their way in the paint.

In addition, without Tracy McGrady or Yao Ming, the Rockets are left with precious few who can create their own offense — and those who can probably shouldn't be relied on to do so consistently or at a very high level. Ron Artest can heat up, but he's very streaky, and when he feels compelled to play the hero, his penchant for jacking up ill-advised shots can be more harmful than helpful to his team. All other players are role players — guys who have done well while the attention was on Yao Ming, but who won't have as easy a time of it now that they will be the primary focus of the Lakers' defense.

Things do not look good for the Rockets.

On the Lakers' end, many were expecting Jordan Farmar to get the start over Derek Fisher in Game 4. The reasons were fairly obvious: Fish can be just as effective off the bench, while it would likely be a continued boost to Farmar's confidence to give him the start and play him alongside the starters. If there is any way to encourage more of the effort he gave in Game 3, that would seem like a Good Thing™.

Furthermore, Jordan Farmar is unquestionably the Lakers' best defensive option against Aaron Brooks. In fact, it isn't even close. In Game 3, Jordan's quickness made him extremely effective against Brooks, with whom the rest of the Lakers simply couldn't keep up. Against a team that is already very limited in terms of guys that can create offense for themselves and their teammates, shutting down Aaron Brooks could be the knockout punch.

Instead, coach Phil Jackson has opted to go back to Derek Fisher as the starting point guard. His comments regarding Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher provide some mildly cryptic insight into his possible reasons for this decision. First, regarding Farmar (via the LA Times):

"I can only hope that he's learned that minutes are not something that are given to you, they're something that you earn," Jackson said. "With the amount of talent that he has around him, he's got to produce.

"I think that's one of the things that he's learned. He's been coming in and shooting, he's been playing hard and doing all the right things."

From this, it's fairly clear that Jackson has been attempting to teach Farmar a lesson. Farmar is a supremely confident player — perhaps, at times, a bit too confident in his standing with the team, which can lead him to play as though his present and future are already guaranteed. Hoefully, his recent lack of playing time and the way Shannon Brown has taken his spot in the rotation have motivated him, and he is taking Jackson's lessons to heart. Nonetheless, this may be a continued message from Jackson, letting Farmar know that one good game doesn't simply cause his problems to go away, and that he expects continued hard work and maximum effort from Farmar going forward.

Jackson commented specifically on the possibility of a change in the starting lineup, stating that Fisher would resume his usual role upon his Game 4 return (via FanHouse):

"If I see there is a need to, yes," Jackson said of the possibility for increased playing time for Farmar going forward in the playoffs. "Obviously Fisher will come back and claim his spot. That's the way it is.

"Jordan's game will certainly be noted. He played a good game today. But he can play better than that, even if it was a stellar performance."

The message here is partly more of the same: It was a good game for Farmar, but it was only one game, and he can still be better. At the same time, however, Jackson almost seemed to be saying that Fisher would resume his starting role "just because."

Finally, Jackson's comments about Derek Fisher proove particularly insightful when it comes to his lineup decisions (via LA Times):

"Derek's been a knockdown shooter in the playoffs for the last 10 years," he said. "He has a way of, if guys are all feeding into Kobe [Bryant] all the time and giving the ball to them and he's demanding the ball and they're [not] being able to say no, [Fisher] will go away somewhere else and get the offense started away from [Bryant] and then come back to him later in the clock."

The points made here may be what is truly at the heart of Jackson's decision to start Fisher over Farmar. It's not just that Fisher is a "knockdown shooter." I also don't think it's as much about Fisher's experience, though that is certainly a plus in the quest for a championship. What this is really about is overall offensive balance, which is facilitated by but extends far beyond Derek Fisher. The Bulldog recognizes when Kobe is trying to do too much by himself, and has the chutzpa to rebuff Bryant's desire to dominate the ball at times. Perhaps most importantly, Kobe Bryant respects him when he does so.

One of my biggest complaints about Bryant's supporting cast is the way that, when Bryant gets hot and starts hitting shots, they start to stand around and watch, rather than moving and being ready for the ball. Don't they understand that when Kobe gets hot, the defense will begin collapsing on him more, creating prime opportunities for them if they move and are ready for the pass? Often, they don't. What Jackson is saying here is that Fisher recognizs this problem as well, and simply takes matters into his own hands. He moves elsewhere and gets other players involved, refusing to allow Bryant to dominate the ball, but also refusing to let his teammates get to complacent when Bryant is on the attack. In that sense, Fisher is extremely valuable to the offense, not just for his shooting or passing, but for his understanding of the situation, overall floor leadership, and ability to mediate between the team and Bryant, not just with words, but with the ball.

Still, many will quesiton the move. Myself, I'm not sure what to make of it. Were this simply motivated by the sheer need for more firepower beyond the 3-point arc, I would be firmly against it. The defensive advantages of Farmar against Brooks far outweigh Fisher's shooting – especially now, when he is struggling. But it's far more than that, and Fisher's overall balancing effect on offense may be valuable enough to offset the defensive hit the Lakers will take at the point guard position. Still, I can't help but wonder: For a team whose primary problem is defensive consistency, shouldn't we be more interested in bolstering the defense, rather than facilitating the offense? I suppose only time will tell.

The other primary factor at play here will be the Lakers' motivation and killer instinct. Since losing Game 1 to the Rockets, they have largerly played like the championship team they hope to be — perhaps not fully arrived, but several huge steps in the right direction, compared to their effort against Utah. The intensity, fire, and effort were all there, and they haven't grown complacent against Houston the way they did against Utah. Their defense has been very solid — not yet reaching the fullness of what the Lakers are capable of, but showing extremely encouraging progress for Lakers fans.

Now, this series is effectively over. Oh, don't expect the Rockets to roll over and go quietly, and don't expect them to make this easy. The Lakers will still have to work to win this series. But everyone expects the Lakers to win the remaining games fairly handily. Will overconfidence against an injury-riddled Houston team cause the Lakers to overlook the fact that this team, first and foremost, is one that plays with maximum effort, never gives up, and wins not on the individual efforts of one or two players, but on the collective effort of the team? If they expect to coast to a 4-1 series win in the next couple days, the Rockets' will rally and surprise them. It is important for the Lakers to come out with the same intensity, focus, motivation, and effort that they brought for games two and three.

This is a do-or-die game for the Rockets. If the Lakers take a 3-1 lead back to Los Angeles, a Game 5 end to the series will be almost guaranteed. All of the pressure is on Houston, and in particular, the lights are now shining brightly on the likes of Luis Scola and Carl Landry. And of course, there's always Ron Artest. Will he recognize that the only way the Rockets have even the slimmest shred of hope is to play the greatest team game they are capable of, or will he attempt to take over and play the role of Houston's Hero? His mindset alone may completely decide the remaining games of this series.

Though I don't expect the win to be as easy as some might predict, I do see a Game 4 win for the Lakers. The Rockets will keep it close in the first half, and perhaps even entier the half with a moderate lead. But in the end, the Lakers talent and depth will overrun the wounded Rockets, securing the game in the second half and setting up an opportunity to win this series in five games when they return to L.A.

Tune in early to start the LIVE GameThread with pregame commentary. The thread should go live around 11;45 a.m.

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