The Lakers discovered an excellent formula for winning on the road against the Jazz, and have improved on it since their Game 4 win in Salt Lake City: Rely on Kobe Bryant to jump-start their offense early, right when the crowd is at its loudest, then play tough half-court defense to hold off the home team. They didn't need much defense in Utah, but they have in this series, and that's why they are on top of the Rockets 2-1 after dropping Game 1. With Yao Ming out with a broken foot, Houston is faced with a very difficult challenge to even the series.
• When Yao played, he laid back on ball screens in their "contain" strategy, and it really hurt Houston. By staying back and having Shane Battier trail Kobe coming off the screen (he can't go under and give up the three) it immediately put Los Angeles in a 5-on-4 situation, with the ball in an attacking Bryant's hands. It's hard to conjure up a more dangerous set than Kobe leading a 5-on-4 action.
• With Yao now out for good (after already losing backup Dikembe Mutombo), Luis Scola or Carl Landry will guard Pau Gasol and maybe they will hedge or blitz these ball screens. Los Angeles consistently uses the ball screen action, so Houston will have to deal with it one way or another. Yao showed strong one time, and it surprised Kobe into taking a bad jumper. If the big does it again in Game 4, Kobe will likely attack him, as he often does in the 5-on-4.
• Houston is a great helpside team, so they often surround Kobe when he does penetrate, making it easy for him to find open teammates. The Rockets made it tough on Kobe to get easy looks, but his teammates made 25-of-54 shots (46 percent), and if you subtract the struggling Sasha Vujacic's numbers from Game 3, they made 24-of-49. Against most first scoring options, the Rockets could always choose to cut off the passes and force one guy to make all the shots.
• Houston also can do a better job defending every action that does not include Kobe. Jordan Farmar was defended with poor strategy, as the Rockets trailed him on ball screens. Why? With Yao staying back to contain, Gasol spaced in the middle after the screen and got an easy jump shot. Farmar was 0-for-3 from 3 in the game, is just an average shooter from 3 and has barely played in the series. With Derek Fisher returning and getting his starting job back, Houston can go under ball screens with him since he's been struggling behind the line. Only if he finds his rhythm should they trail him on screens.
• The speed of the game really hurt Houston, which typically prefers a steadier pace. Their 17 turnovers were what killed them the most. Los Angeles took some quick shots, but they were worthwhile in the sense that it quickened the speed of the game and baited Houston into playing that kind of game. Houston must control the tempo in Game 4, breaking when the numbers are there (so as to avoid the Lakers' strong half-court defense) but executing when they are not.
• Houston's half-court spacing was poor for much of the game, with guys too close to Yao when he had the ball. This allowed long and quick athletes like Kobe, Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom to dig and swipe at Yao. Now, without Yao L.A. may try to play all the post players straight up. If so, Houston will counter with numerous inside screening actions in an effort to free up someone near the rim. The rule in basketball is "the screener is always open." If L.A. favors the guy getting screened, then that screener needs to pin someone and get an angle to the rim.
• Odom's favorite drive is the slice going left from the right side. But against Houston, he can not slice past the midline (the imaginary line connecting the two rims). It's too easy for the Rockets to draw the charge. Releasing the shot just as he gets to the midline is about the best he can hope for.
• Houston threw to Yao closer to the baseline than usual, giving him more space to operate and forcing helpers or doublers to travel farther to get to Yao. They had some successful possessions this way, and it's smart strategy going forward with Scola and Landry. The Lakers can counter this by having Gasol or Bynum defend them from the baseline side rather than the middle, forcing the action up the floor and back closer to helpers.
• This game would have been an even uglier blowout had L.A. brought the same intensity to rebounding as it did on defense. Most of the time, their effort of the defensive boards was awful. Blockouts were rare, and were almost never sustained. Scola, Yao and Battier collected 14 offensive rebounds, often untouched. Odom frequently turned and jumped to gather boards, rather than hitting, turning and maintaining the contact against Scola. That's the recipe for Game 4.
• Carl Landry is an excellent weapon and combines with Scola to give Houston two tough inside-outside guys who can bail out missed shots with their board work.
• The big Game 4 win in Salt Lake City was all about Kobe carrying the team through three quarters. The Rockets have not shown an answer for him, which means we could see the same thing this time around.
• The Lakers have put together three strong halves in a row. Are they rounding into playoff form, or will they suffer a letdown and defend casually?
Ironically, Fisher's "play" with Scola in Game 2 could end up being a totally positive result for L.A. It reminded the Lakers of what Boston did to them last June, and it got Farmar some much-needed game time and in-game confidence. He was a huge energy factor for them. Houston is demoralized and now has Yao's injury to deal with, but memories of last season's incredibly tough performance without Yao against the Jazz are still fresh. This game should have the look of a prize fight. The Rockets will not go down easy, but L.A.'s offensive weapons and rediscovered passion for defense should be too much.
Prediction: L.A. wins Game 4
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.