Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
After getting burned by Yao Ming for seven field goals in the first quarter of Game One, Portland has shifted its defensive course, devoting a lot more attention to Yao ever since. For most of the past three games, Portland has deployed what Doug Collins referred to Sunday night as a "sandwich” – one defender fronting Yao (usually Portland's center, Joel Przybilla or Greg Oden), and one playing behind him on the block (usually the power forward, LaMarcus Aldridge). Even when that sandwich has been open-faced, Aldridge hasn't veered too far away from Yao down low.
The strategy has allowed the Blazers to contain Yao reasonably well (14 FGMs in the past 15 quarters), but it puts a lot of pressure on the rest of Portland's defense. With Steve Blake picking up Aaron Brooks as the Rockets get into the offense, that leaves only two Portland defenders to essentially zone up on the remaining three Rockets -- one of which is Houston's power forward, Luis Scola (and his backup, Carl Landry).
Scola and Landry teamed up for ten buckets Sunday night, the majority of which were the direct result of Portland's defensive focus on Yao. This left the Houston 4s to find space and opportunities on the floor to make the Blazers pay.
Here's a sampling of the kinds of shots Scola was able to get and convert Sunday night:
[1st Quarter, 3:54 mark] This basket occurs in transition, but it still gets to the heart of the dynamic with Yao. On the defensive end, Yao pokes the ball away from Greg Oden on the left block. This ignites the break for Houston. Incredibly, Yao is the first man down the court for the Rockets, and he's open for business on the right block before the Blazers defense can get set. Brandon Roy is the first on the scene. He covers the entry angle into Yao until Portland's big men arrive on the scene. Roy's presence is enough to deter Aaron Brooks, who opts to pass the ball off to a trailing Ron Artest. There have been several instances during this series when, guided by my own prejudice, I assume Artest will muck up a perfectly good opportunity with an ill-advised chuck, but he's been relatively temperate. To that effect, Artest wisely returns the ball to Brooks in the right corner. Both Oden and Aldridge have caught up to the play, and both frantically find Yao as Brooks slings a baseline pass into Yao beneath the basket. Unfortunately for the Blazers, neither big man accounts for Scola, who is left by himself on the left block. Scola makes it easy for Yao, by diving to the rack. Yao hits him on arrival for the layup.
There are plenty of third/fourth offensive options in the league whose livelihoods depend on the disproportionate amount of attention given to their star teammates, but few tandems have developed the telepathy that Yao and Scola have over the past few months. Since Tracy McGrady's departure from the Rockets' lineup this winter, Scola has mastered the art of understanding precisely where he should be to take maximum advantage of Yao's presence -- not only in the halfcourt, but even on the break. Credit Yao for knowing how to capitalize on Scola's resourcefulness.
[3rd Quarter, 6:43 mark] The trap on Yao doesn't always come from the Blazers' 4. Here, Travis Outlaw -- who is covering Artest -- joins Joel Przybilla to trap Yao along the right side of the baseline. They've got Yao locked up and will get a hard-earned defensive stop if they can sustain the heat. Battier is directly behind Yao in the right corner, guarded by Roy. That leaves Steve Blake and Aldridge to patrol the rest of the court. It's a gamble by Portland. You admire the pressure they're applying by smothering Yao in the baseline, but their tactic doesn't come without risk.
Sure enough, Scola darts his way over toward Yao, then squeezes past Blake to set up beneath the right edge of the backboard. Scola is now in position to be on the receiving end of a treacherous pass from Yao along the baseline. Aldridge contests Scola's layup attempt, but Scola dekes him with a little upfake. The Yao-Scola symbiosis is evident again.
[3rd Quarter, 3:47 mark; 4th Quarter, 6:37 mark] Houston doesn't have a lineup of dynamic scorers who can create shots out of thin air. When the Rockets succeed in halfcourt, it's generally because they work the margins of a possession -- "take what the defense gives 'em," in the parlance of color commentary. It's unlikely that Portland wants Luis Scola shooting open jumpers from 17 feet (whereas they're probably okay with Ron Artest launching from 25 with a defender in close proximity). They've made a calculation based on two undesirable choices: Guarding Yao one-on-one underneath, or giving Scola more room than he should rightfully have.
These two buckets are near-perfect illustrations of the price the Blazers are paying. Both come fairly early in the possession, at :15 and :20 on the shot clock respectively. The first comes on a drive-and-dish initiated by Aaron Brooks. Aldridge has opted to stick closer to Yao (directly underneath) than to Scola (along the baseline to the right side). As Brooks enters the lane, he kicks the ball over to Scola, who nails the open 17-footer.
It's difficult to fault Aldridge here, because he's abiding by Portland's defensive strategy. The same holds true in the fourth quarter on an inbounds play. The Blazers are sandwiching Yao along the baseline. The ball goes into Battier, who wastes no time in passing it over to Scola at the top of the key. There isn't a Blazer in close proximity to contest Scola.
If Houston ultimately prevails in this series, Scola's ability to hit the open 15-to-18 foot jumper that Portland is ceding him will be among the primary factors. So far, Scola has drained 14 of his 27 shot attempts from mid-range.
It would be unfair to ignore Carl Landry's fourth quarter basket at the 2:30 mark that gives the Rockets a four-point lead. Much like Scola, Landry finds himself unmanned by the Blazers, and flashes to the top of the key where he gets an identical pass from Battier.
Landry's shot is huge -- as are Scola's -- and it goes to underscore how important the 4 is in the Rockets' offense. So long as Yao serves as the focal point of the opposing defense, Houston's power forward is in the spotlight. How well he cuts, shoots, and uses all that open space the defense gives him will go a long way toward determining how far into spring the Rockets will be playing this year.
(Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)