This might actually be the match up between the two best teams in the western conference.
Big men: Los Angeles Lakers start Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom against Yao Ming and Luis Scola who start for the Houston Rocket. This is going to end up being a match up of speed (Lakers) against power (Rockets.) As a result, the Lakers need to abandon any thought of playing Yao Ming straight up and should instead front him at all times and double him after he starts dribbling. Yao Ming isn’t much of a passer off the dribble and this should be a great way for the Lakers to generate some turnovers. At the same time, the Lakers have to either stay at home on Luis Scola or close out on him quickly. The moment you leave him for too long, bad things happen as he will either hit an open jumper, cut to the basket, or simply crash the boards. Speaking of rebounds, the Lakers have to commit as a team to boxing out. During their first round match up, the Utah Jazz averaged 13 offensive rebounds a game which led to numerous second chance opportunities. The Rocket big men have to understand that if they don’t give up on a play then there is a good chance they will be able to score 10-15 points a game just on put backs. When the Lakers are on offense, Scola has to gauge Lamar Odom’s mood. If Odom is playing passive, don’t be aggressive on defense because you risk waking him up and having him do something. Meanwhile, Yao has no chance at keeping up with the much faster Gasol, but he can be physical enough with him to try and intimidate the Spaniard. Honestly, if I was working for the Rockets all I would do is keep showing Yao Ming the picture of Gasol and the rest of the Spanish national team’s offensive Olympic picture. That should motivate him to shut down Gasol. In any case, both sets of big men have their work cut out for them if they want to gain a significant advantage.
Swing Men: Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza start for the Lakers against the Rocket’s Ron Artest and Shane Battier. For all the talk about the Rockets having two guys who can potentially stop Kobe Bryant, Bryant did average 28.3 points, 5 assists, and 53 percent shooting against both of them during the regular season. Basically, it doesn’t matter who decides to guard the most skilled player in the NBA; Kobe knows he can get his. Honestly, the best way to guard Kobe Bryant in my opinion is to let him score early and get into a rhythm by the first quarter. You want to turn his teammates like Trevor Ariza into spectators. Once the game does head into the fourth quarter, none of the other Lakers will be in rhythm and Kobe should be exhausted. The Lakers are simply not a disciplined team at times and thus are vulnerable to a strategy like this. Don’t fret Laker fans because thanks to Ron Artest, so are the Rockets. If the Lakers allow Ron Artest to take all the dumb shots that he wants to take, this is going to be a short series as Artest attempts to go 1 on 5 and lose a whole bunch of times. At least when Kobe Bryant decides to take on the world by himself there is a slight chance he goes nuts and pulls it off. Ron Artest has zero percent chance to win a game by himself on the offensive end. Both Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier are guys who will do all the little things on both ends of the floor, be capable of guarding the opposing team’s best wing scorer (Kobe and Artest,) and knock down open jumpers. Both will have at least one game that they will alter greatly without any regular fan knowing.
Point Guards: Los Angeles’s Derek Fisher vs. Houston’s Aaron Brooks will finally answer the question: who is faster, a rock or something traveling at the speed of light? Not only is Derek Fisher quite possibly the slowest starting point guard in the league (bottom five for sure,) but Aaron Brooks is probably the fastest/quickest north-south point guard in the league. Look for Aaron Brooks to beat Fisher over and over again and quicken the overall pace of the game…which incidentally plays right into the Lakers hands. The faster the pace is, the harder it is for Yao Ming and Luis Scola to keep up with the Laker big men. Thus, Brooks has to keep his composure against Fisher and pick his spots to beat him off the dribble (generally by either waiting for his entire team to get over the timeline or by having one or two man fast breaks.) Fisher on the other hand should be given a handful of plays where he takes Brooks down low into the post and absolutely hammers him.
Coaches/Bench: Phil Jackson and the Lakers bench vs. Rick Adelman and the Rockets bench. Off the bench, the Lakers will play Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown and maybe Jordan Farmar and Josh Powell. The Rockets on the flip side can count on Kyle Lowry, Von Wafer, Carl Landry, and Chuck Hayes to play some minutes with possibly some cameos from Brent Barry and Brian Cook. No offense to Rick Adelman who is a nice regular season coach, but Phil Jackson completely destroys him. Phil Jackson and Adelman have met many times in the playoffs, but Jackson has never once lost a series in their head to head match up. In any case Adelman has to figure out how to be more creative in how he uses Yao Ming. Against Portland he either received the ball down at the left block or was too busy setting screens to receive the ball. That can’t happen against the Lakers, because Yao Ming is the most consistent scorer on the Rockets who can’t allow themselves to go on as many scoring droughts as they did against the Blazers and thus they must take advantage of the fact that the high scoring Lakers have even less size than the Blazers at the moment. At the same time, Phil Jackson has to figure out a way for the Lakers to provide help on both Yao Ming and a penetrating Brooks without giving up too many open jumpers to the snipers on the Rockets. That is really where this chess match begins. I will suggest one thing for the Rockets: that they play Von Wafer alongside both Battier and Artest while resting either Ming or Scola for significant stretches of the game. This allows Artest to shut down Odom which he is capable of doing and Battier to face Bryant. This also allows for a maximum spreading of the floor if Yao is the center as he now has four three point shooters he can pass to. The one risk here is that this line up is probably easier to convince to run, and the Lakers have ran all season which gives them the huge advantage if the pace does quicken. Still, this lineup could be the perfect antidote and something Adelman should tinker with, because the Rockets need all the offense they can get. As for a suggestion for Phil Jackson, the Lakers should make sure that they aren’t substituting too many players in at once, because the Rockets will be able to pick that as a perfect time to make a run against cold players.
Final Verdict: In the end, despite the Rockets playing good defense, having the best offensive center in the game, and having a point guard that should give the Lakers fits on defense, they simply cannot keep up with the Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers when clicking have the best offense in the game, and should be able to run away with the score in most cases. Lakers in 5