AP Photo/Matt Sayles – very cool photo

After watching the Game 7 in Boston I decided to come back to LA to spend my remaining days before heading back to Australia. I chose LA for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the flight home leaves from LAX, kinda obvious. Secondly, because I thought the Lakers were probably title-bound and it would be cool to at least see them in the playoffs, to be able to boast I saw the 2009 Champions in the flesh. That is premature thinking of course, and sitting in my hotel room a couple of hours after the game, I can tell you, I don’t feel like I just watched the to-be 2009 Champs.

LA came out real flat in this game. The Rockets asserted themselves physically, took the crowd out of it, and the Lakers never really recovered. I along with everyone else was anticipating a Lakers run that would put them over the top, but it never came. Not once could the Lakers string three or four good possessions together in a row, and whenever they threatened it was Ron or Yao or Brooks (yes, Aaron Brooks, more on him later) that responded.

Firstly I gotta talk about Yao. I tip my hat to you sir. This was not the Yao I’d seen earlier in the season and had been following for most of his career. This was Yao morphed into some sort of postseason Chinese warrior, never once hesitating with the ball, playing physical defense, and being an inspirational leader. Late in the fourth quarter Yao banged knees with Kobe and spent a few minutes on the deck in agony. It didn’t look good, but Lakers fans seemed happy. They applauded him when he hobbled off the court, a courteous “we hope you’re ok but we’re really just happy you’re gone” applause. The Lakers were down by only six with five minutes left, and you could sense it, that run was coming. But then Yao came back out of the tunnel and that courteous applause suddenly turned to boos (this was quite amusing to say the least). Not only did Yao come back with his knee still visibly sore, he hit his first shot and made all six free throws over the final few minutes to snuff out a Lakers comeback. This game felt like a really important moment for the Ming Dynasty.

Then there was the strange tale of Aaron Brooks, the guy I called the Rockets X-factor in round 1. After a solid start in that Blazers series Brooks hasn’t looked back, and against the Lakers tonight he was unstoppable. After the game Rick Aldeman praised Brooks saying that he needed to attack tonight, and Phil Jackson admitted that his “quickness hurt us”. Yao said it was “one of the best games he’s had” and Kobe even said himself that they weren’t able to get in front of him. This is Aaron Brooks we’re talking about here folks. Why did the Lakers look so helpless against him? For one, they probably didn’t anticipate Brooks would be so aggressive on offense and their help-defense against him was horrific. And two, Derek Fisher was just too damn slow. Fisher on Brooks is a really bad match up for the Lakers – I’m surprised both Fisher’s ankles are intact tonight after the number of times Brooks crossed him up. Shannon Brown is the obvious choice, but I question why the hell Jordan Farmar didn’t get more minutes against him? Farmer played only three minutes in this game, looked really sharp, did a great job on Brooks, and hit a corner three at the three-quarter time buzzer. Why oh why Phil Jackson would you not bring him back on?

Also loved Artest in this game, who put the team on his back early, made a lot of tough shots, and made Kobe work his ass off. I think people forget how many pressure playoff situations Ron Artest has been in, especially with Indiana back in the days of their Pistons rivalry. He exudes a calmness for that Rockets team when he has the ball, which as I’ve said before, is incredibly ironic. Ron Artest and calmness didn’t exactly used to be friends.

After the game I sat in the press conference and heard Rick Aldeman, Phil Jackson, Yao and Kobe speak. Here are a few things they said of note:

  • Coach Aldeman said they employed a similar strategy for Kobe as they did with Brandon Roy, the difference between the two being that Kobe tends to be more aggressive at getting to the bucket. He then talked about Shane Battier’s defense on Kobe, and made an interesting point as to why Shane is such a talented defender. “Shane knows he isn’t going to shut down Kobe”. He went on to say that Battier’s whole approach is not about trying to stop Kobe one-on-one because he concedes that it’s not possible from the get-go. It thus becomes about spacing, knowing where your help defense is, and trying to push Kobe to certain areas of the floor. Aldeman said he was lucky to have a defender as smart as Battier.
  • The first words out of Phil Jackson’s mouth were “well that was no surprise to us”. He said he felt there were a few factors going into the game that made this let-down seem a bit inevitable. He didn’t really reveal what those factors were, but it typical Phil Jackson style, he didn’t seem too fussed about the whole thing. “We’ll be ok” he said. When asked why he was confident the team would put in a much better effort in Game 2, Phil said “I don’t know if we could play much worse, quite honestly”.
  • Yao said he was surprised the Lakers didn’t make a run, especially after what happened during the regular season when the Lakers closed out each game with big fourth quarters. When asked what it felt like to get the win despite the Rockets being the underdog, Yao started warming up his comedy routine. “Well.. this is a word I just learned two days ago [referring to "underdog"]… but just like the NBA says, ‘where amazing happens’”. He was then asked how this series was different to the last time he faced the Lakers in the playoffs (back when Shaq was playing). Yao thought about it for a few seconds. “I’m older than then” he said with a deadpan expression.  I had to laugh. Yao truly is a character.
  • Kobe was obviously not happy about his team’s effort, but he wasn’t seething. “We just blew defensive assignments at key moments” he kept saying. He refused to blame his illness coming into the game, saying that he was fine, and that his energy was fine. He talked about how he’s been in this situation before, especially he and Derek earlier on in their careers, and that he was “interested to see how the team responds”. Kobe was actually grinning while he talked about this, and said that it was a “challenge” for this team. He knows better than anyone that a loss like this can actually be turned into a positive, an opportunity for the team to prove their mental resolve and respond to adversity. Think back to Boston last year, they lost ten playoff games on their journey to winning the the Finals. It’s like the old saying, when you feel pain at least you know you’re alive. The Lakers feel pain tonight but they are still alive. Kobe knows that, he thrives on that pain, and I suspect that’s why he couldn’t help but raise a little smile. Still alive.

On to today votes:

3 votes – Yao Ming. Said it all above. Still in awe at how well he played, how well he shot the ball from long range, and how he has raised his floor presence to Shaq-like levels.

2 votes – Rashard Lewis. Caught the first half of this game and the final minutes on a TV at Staples Center. Lewis gets the votes for setting the tone early when Dwight was struggling, and proving that even when his 3-point shot isn’t falling (1-5) he can still be a smart and effective player. Lead the Magic in +/- differential by a long way.

1 votes – Dwight Howard. A casual 16-22 game. I actually thought Boston did a pretty decent job on limiting Dwight to easy points and dunks, but it is a sign of Dwight’s maturity that you can do that and he will still dominate. The last quarter kind of took the shine off it, but seriously, the Magic absolutely whooped the Celtics tonight. In the first half it looked like Rondo was half-asleep or hungover. It was the worst I’ve seen Boston get beat in a long time.

Day 16 – Goodbye Mr. Wade

3 votes – Joe Johnson. Saves his best game of the series till it mattered most. I call that “being late”, some might call it “being clutch”. But let’s not overlook the fact that this was supposed to be the stage for Dwyane Wade to turn in one of his classic playoff performances, and he was completely upstaged by his direct opponent. “When Joe is hitting 40-foot 3s it’s one of those nights” Wade said. Damn straight it is. Goodbye Mr. Wade.

2 votes – Carmelo Anthony. Great all-round game by Melo. Shot the ball efficiently (7-10), got his teammates involved when he needed to, and played great defense on Dirk and Josh. So many Nuggets players played well tonight, but Melo drew a lot more attention than anybody so his effort was more vote-worthy in my eyes.

1 vote – Nene. Getting 24 points out of Nene is just a huge bonus, and one of the reasons the Mavs were made to look really small and soft. Love this guys hustle and energy. He’s exactly the kind of guy I’d call to give me a hand if I was moving house. He could probably carry my fridge by himself.

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