Houston, You Are a Problem

Could the upstart Rockets derail the Lakers and scuttle the much-anticipated Kobe-LeBron clash in the NBA Finals?

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Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Finally! It took four games, but the Boston Celtics second-round series with the Orlando Magic is no longer looking like a severe letdown.

Most basketball fans have had the series circled since mid-April, when the Cleveland Cavaliers clinched the best record in the Eastern conference, and put Boston and Orlando, the teams with the third- and fourth-best records in the NBA this year, on a collision course for a second-round matchup. The anticipation was heightened when the Celtics played an epic seven-game series against the Chicago Bulls in the first round that featured one transcendent play after another and a record four games that required overtime to settle the score.

However, before Sunday, the Magic and Celtics had failed to live up to the billing. Two of the first three games were desultory blowouts, and the first game of the series, a 95-90 Magic win, was only close at the end.

Then came Sunday night’s close, hard-fought drama. By now, you probably know that the Celtics won 95-94 on a buzzer beating shot by Glen “Big Baby” Davis. And that isn’t the half of it.

For one, Davis scored five of the Celtics last six points, including a jump shot from the elbow to give the Cs a 93-92 lead with 31 seconds to go. In fact, Davis’ two baskets in the final minute of the game were the only Celtics field goals in the last seven minutes of the game. Yet Orlando’s shutdown of the Boston offense wasn’t the major defensive story: The big news was how thoroughly the Celtics clamped down on the Magic. Following Game 3 on Friday, when the Magic shot 59.1 percent in a 117-96 romp, the Celtics held Orlando to an ice-cold 40 percent (34-85), and in a one-point win, every miss mattered.

The Celtics adopted a daring strategy in which the Boston defenders played a step back from their man, ceding the outside shot, often a three-pointer, in favor of preventing drives to the lane. That is where Boston, their front-court thinned by injuries to all-star forward Kevin Garnett and key reserve Leon Powe, knew they would be vulnerable. Against most teams, this is a sensible strategy, but the Magic were second in the league this season in most three-pointers attempted per game and seventh in accuracy. Yet, the strategy worked; Orlando shot 5-27 from downtown. If they shot 6-27, the Magic would be one win away from their first trip to the Eastern conference finals in 13 years.

On Sunday afternoon, the Houston Rockets shocked the Los Angeles Lakers, 99-87, in a game that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the final score suggests. It was shocking because the Rockets were without center Yao Ming, who suffered a hairline fracture of a bone in his foot in Friday night’s game, a 108-94 Lakers victory. The Rockets were also already without swingman Tracy McGrady and backup center Dikembe Mutombo. In other words, they entered Sunday afternoon’s game with only no player taller than 6’10’’ to face a Los Angeles team that sometimes plays three men taller than that at the same time. Since the Lakers had already won six of seven games against Houston this season (four in the regular season, and two of three in the post-season), the Rockets’ injury situation seemed to spell doom for them.

Wrong. The Rockets came out and played small ball to perfection. Playing aggressive, swarming defense, the Rockets scored the first nine points, and led by 13 after one period, by 18 at half, and by the end of the third quarter, the game was essentially over; the Rockets led 83-54. Houston’s final points of the third quarter came on an alley-oop pass from 60 feet away to the smallest man on the floor, Rockets guard Aaron Brooks, who scored a career high 34 points.

The Lakers seemed dazed, as if they didn’t know what hit them. They should have. The Rockets played a similar defense to the one they employed in their 100-92 win in Game 1 last Monday. Houston shut down the middle and forced the Lakers’ perimeter players to beat them with jump shots; Los Angeles wasn’t up to the task. The lone difference on Sunday was that the Rockets conceded the matchup at center. Pau Gasol shot 11-17 and scored 30 points. The rest of the Lakers shot 23-59 and mustered only 57 points. Yes, Kobe Bryant played, but he scored only 15 points on 7-17 shooting. The Rockets kept him out of lane, and Kobe didn’t attempt a single free throw.

As the Lakers prepare for Game 5 on Tuesday night, they have their own injury concerns. Versatile forward Lamar Odom left the game in the third quarter after a collision and was suffering back spasms. His availability for the next game is uncertain. Also, center Andrew Bynum, who has been playing with a brace to stabilize his surgically repaired right knee, told the L.A. Daily News that he’s only 85-90 percent, and his sparing use and middling play back his words up.

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