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Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Updated: May 6, 5:19 PM ET
Rockets vs. Lakers: Four key questions

ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant
Kobe and the Lakers are in a bit of a jam against the Rockets. Can they find their way?
The Lakers are in a 1-0 hole. Is it time to panic? What must they do?

Are the Rockets on their way to representing the West in the Finals? How far can they go?

Our experts chime in.

1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how alarmed should L.A.'s fans be?

Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: If 10 is fleeing the building screaming, then I'd say around 8, which is where you stop sipping espresso and start chugging it.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Level 6. The Lakers things got a lot tougher a lot earlier than they expected. While Houston pretty much maxed out its possible points in Game 1, the Lakers can score more than the 92 they put up.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: 5. There's no question the Lakers can win in Houston, so L.A. will regain home-court advantage if it can win Game 2, but Houston appears to be for real. The Rockets are big and tough, they can shoot 3s and they defend. They also seem to be mentally tougher than they have been in the past, so the Lakers can't count on the Rockets beating themselves.

The Lakers have been somewhat lethargic throughout the playoffs. They'd better wake up in Game 2.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: 5. We've seen this before -- Miami lost Game 1 to New Jersey handily in the 2006 conference semis, then went on to win the next four and eventually take the title. And San Antonio lost a Game 1 at home three different times and won a title. Even Jordan's Bulls lost a Game 1 in the conference semis -- to the mighty Hawks, no less -- before recovering to win another ring.

So while it's appropriate to be concerned, Laker Nation needs to understand that even the best teams put up a clunker now and then.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Lakers fans are a different breed, and when you tell them you think their team is going to lose, they take it personally. Trust me, I have an inbox full of their angry messages, and my prediction of Rockets in seven games was the topic du jour on L.A. sports radio for the better part of Monday afternoon.

My opinion: Their worry scale should be at 9.5 now. And if they lose Wednesday, they can pull a page from Spinal Tap and crank it up to 11.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: 5. That's a higher number than I would have offered up a few days ago, but the Rockets have quickly convinced us that they've succeeded San Antonio as the most defensively disciplined team still alive in the West with their great Game 1 work against Kobe.

Houston's problem: I do still A) think that the rust factor contributed heavily to L.A.'s woes Monday night and B) worry about Houston's ability to score enough to beat the West's heavy favorites three more times.


2. What are two things the Lakers must do better?

Abbott: They really have to do only one thing to win every game they play in: play with tremendous intensity at all times. For some reason, these Lakers have been a little bit like the Pistons of the recent past, who thought they could turn it on and off.

Also, start fronting Yao Ming already. Why does nobody believe this is Plan A? You don't want to know Houston's points-per-possession rate once Yao catches it in post position. I don't know the number, but I can tell you that throughout the entire playoffs he has missed only a few times after catching it deep.

Adande: The Lakers have to stop Aaron Brooks' penetration -- even if it means leaving a 3-point shooter open, which Phil Jackson hates to do.

Andrew Bynum has to make an impact in this series. Having his rebound totals exceed his personal fouls would be a start.

Broussard: First, the Lakers need greater contributions from Andrew Bynum. They need his size against Yao Ming; plus, an active, aggressive Bynum can help solve the Lakers' very real "softness" problem.

Second, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom each has to bring his A-game. Yao is going to win the matchup at center, but those two need to give the Lakers an advantage at the other frontcourt spots.

Hollinger: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. L.A. did the same exact things Portland did in Game 1 of the last series -- playing behind Yao on defense and using big players to defend him instead of using small players to attack him. Somehow they expected to win anyway. Did they watch any film with all those days off, or did they just presume a Western Conference title was their birthright and spend the last week preparing for LeBron?

A secondary concern is the point guard position, which is giving the Lakers nothing right now. Derek Fisher has been a liability throughout the postseason, the Shannon Brown feel-good story may be hitting its sell-by date, and Jordan Farmar is a basket case. Somehow, one of the three needs to give L.A. something and keep the faster Houston guards out of the paint.

Sheridan: I'm no defensive guru, but I might try throwing a trap at Aaron Brooks on a semi-regular basis to get the ball out of his hands and make someone else initiate their offense. His speed is a big problem for L.A.

And then there's the obvious: They need to make 3-point shots.

Stein: 1. I'm sure everyone at the table will say something about Derek Fisher's struggles keeping up with Aaron Brooks. Shannon Brown and/or Jordan Farmar, step right up.

2. Pau Gasol especially (but Lamar Odom, too) should be doing a lot more damage if Houston is going to commit so many bodies to walling off Kobe.


3. What are two things the Rockets need to do better?

Abbott: They are doing the best job of anybody in the league at keeping opponents from getting to the rim. That'll get tougher and tougher as Kobe Bryant gets over his cold and gets more determined to find good shots. So ... keeping that up is Job 1.

The second trick will be to get the ball to Yao Ming when he's fronted. The entire roster needs some on-the-lob training.

Adande: Houston had 18 turnovers (to the Lakers' 13) in Game 1, which isn't a formula for advancing.

Shane Battier needs to hit some 3-pointers to keep the Lakers defense honest (0-for-4 in Game 1).

Broussard: Aaron Brooks needs to continue to shine. The diminutive point guard has been a big X factor for the Rockets this postseason. While we've heard about his potential for a while, no one expected him to come of age in these playoffs. If he continues to break down the Lakers' defense at the point, L.A. is going to have problems.

Next, Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes must continue to bully L.A.'s big men. Keep being physical with them.

Hollinger: What's amazing is that the Rockets won Monday night despite poor games from both Von Wafer and Luis Scola, the two guys who tormented Portland last series. Wafer was so bad that Rick Adelman yanked him and put in Brent Barry, while Scola missed several open J's that he had drained in the Portland series.

The other thing Houston has to do is not lose sight of what won Game 1. They're good when Yao Ming is getting touches in the post; when they can't get it in to him and Ron Artest starts going one-on-five, they struggle to score. The test for the Rockets is whether they can stay disciplined enough to keep feeding the big guy game after game. So far this year, they've been erratic at best in that department.

Sheridan: Maybe use Luis Scola as a low-block offensive option a little more to try to get the Lakers' big men into foul trouble. The fewer guys they have to defend Yao and Scola, the better Houston's chances look.

They also shouldn't let Yao bang knees with anyone again. That was scary.

Stein: (1) Can they keep Ron Artest (and his famously adventurous shot selection) plugged in like he was in Game 1 for the whole series?

(2) The Rockets were allegedly unhappy with their offensive execution in Game 1 despite reaching triple digits, but I want to see them follow up Yao Ming's finest playoff hour by making sure he doesn't have the sort of Game 2 he had in the Portland series.


4. Seven wins from the NBA Finals: How many of those seven will Houston get?

Abbott: I really have no idea. The Rockets probably will win every game when Ron Artest shoots better than 50 percent. But if the NBA has taught us anything over the last decade, it's that predicting Ron Artest's next move is a fool's errand.

So, my best guess is two, but seven wouldn't shock me.

Adande: Two more. They stretch the Lakers to the limit, but fall in Game 7. Hey, that's seven more second-round playoff games than this franchise has played since the 1990s.

Broussard: Two. I think Houston can force a Game 7, but Kobe will lead the Lakers to victory on his home floor in the series finale.

Hollinger: Two. Check out this stat, though: Since Feb. 11, the Lakers are 27-10. You know what the Rockets' record is? 27-10. While I'm not ready to go as far as Mr. Sheridan, this is a much more evenly matched series than people think, especially since L.A.'s supposed wild card, Andrew Bynum, has been so ineffective in the postseason.

I picked L.A. in six before things started, and now I suspect they might need the full seven, but I still believe the Lakers have enough talent to win one game in Houston and claim the series.

Sheridan: Well, I'm all alone on our 10-man staff in picking them to win this thing, so I'm saying it'll be three at a minimum. Beyond that, I think they'd be in for a tough fight against Denver but would get past Dallas fairly easily.

Stein: Two at the most, but I'm more inclined to say one. I thought the Lakers would win in six going in, before we all saw how serious the Rockets are about playing D and dredging up all that toughness talk that the Lakers hate. But winning three more times or winning again in L.A. when the Lakers inevitably steal one back in Houston? Hard to picture.