I think everyone with an emotional interest in this series is sad to see Yao Ming go down with the broken foot and be out. He had played with the heart of a lion, a real warrior, and he was just great to watch as a fan of the game of basketball.
In the preview for game three, Reed talked about the team dealing best with keeping their heads and executing their game plan in the wake of the emotional game two would win. That holds true for game four — if the Lakers now let up because there is no Yao, they will lose. This is a scrappy Rockets team, one that is not going to give up. Execution remains the key, the Lakers need to keep doing what they had done.
With Yao gone there is little need to double, they need to be smart man to man. The Lakers have forced an average of 18.3 turnovers per game this season (while giving up 10) and if you can force them sans Yao to create shots on their own we can force more of these. Also, they can get blocks — the Lakers have averaged seven a game in this series (compared to 2.7 for the Rockets). Energy on defense remains the key.
So now what for the Rockets? I would expect Landry to start, and for the Rockets to go with their small lineup. That group has given the Lakers fits and it will take away some (if not all) of the advantage the Lakers have had on the break (and for the playoffs the Rockets are 7.1 points per 100 possession better on offense when he is off the floor, and they are +14 in this series). The Lakers will need to execute better in the half court (even if that is more freelanced offense on the secondary break) than it has so far.
Look for Artest to start out strong, but his shooting has dropped off by quarter in this series dramatically (.550 in first quarter; .502 in second; .413 in third; .303 in fourth). No matter how mad he is at him, Adelman needs Von Wafer because he needs the guy who can create offense. Wafer can also make questionable decisions, and the Lakers can take advantage of it.
I also am curious to see what happens with the Rockets defense — last game when Kobe came off a Gasol screen Yao pulled back and Battier fought over the top then tried to funnel Kobe to Yao (this worked sporadically). Now, I bet you see a lot of showing out on the screen, meaning Gasol’s man is going to step out and they are going to if not outright trap Kobe they are going to try to cut off his driving lane and likely try to get the ball out of his hands.
Game three also saw a bit of a shift in how the Rockets dealt with Kobe philosophically — rather than being okay with him getting his but trying to make it hard and cut off the passing angles, they really just collapsed on him. That opened things up for everyone else, and the other Lakers made them pay. (Well, not Sasha, but he’s just ice right now shooting 23.5%.) Does that change?
For the Lakers defensively, they need to play smart man-to-man now, with very limited doubling (when Scola starts backing down Odom there should be help, for example). The Rockets don’t have starters that can create their own shot well, outside of Brooks (who would prefer to pass) so the Lakers want to essentially force them to do that. And hope that Artest feels he has to take this game over.
The Lakers get Fish back, and while there is a sudden vocal minority on this site that doesn’t think so, this is a good thing. Fish was the starter on 185 straight games for the Lakers (regular season and playoffs) and has in that recent time led the team to the NBA Finals and the second best record in the NBA. Since he returned the Fish/Bryant backcourt is 141-51. That is not an accident or in spite of him, and there has not been a dramatic drop-off . That said, I hope to see plenty of Farmar today, his effort earned him more minutes — but this is a good matchup for him. Fast but not physically strong point guards (like Brooks) play to Farmar’s strengths, so the Lakers should use him. (Next round, against Billups, we will be very thankful we have Fish and not just Farmar and Brown.)
Note to Shannon Brown — Kyle Lowry almost always fakes first on his perimeter shots. Please stop biting on that and fouling.
There are reasons to feel good — Phil Jackson is 22-1 in the playoffs when his team has led 2-1. And Adelman’s teams have never come back from that deficit. But we know this Laker team, they are fully capable of laying an egg.