The Rockets came into Game 4 with the thought that their collective group, minus Yao, was still good enough to win the game. There was no need to think about what might end up happening after that. Physicalness, toughness, smarts, speed and some good fortune were part of the game plan. The Lakers countered with the casual team we've seen a few times in this postseason, and the result was a first-class spanking by halftime.
In basketball, momentum is a hard thing to change, and by the time the Lakers got themselves in gear in the fourth quarter, they were being blown out of the building. I expected this game to be a prizefight, so deep is my respect for this Rockets team. But only one fighter showed up, and now L.A. has lost a good deal of the momentum it had built in Games 2 and 3.
• I'm not sure I've ever seen a team execute better, while missing a starting center/franchise player, than Houston on Sunday. They do not have to change anything heading back to L.A., other than steel their resolve in expectations of a better Lakers effort.
• Houston does have to prepare for some of L.A.'s adjustments, notably how they will defend ball screens with Aaron Brooks. If they blitz, Carl Landry or Luis Scola have to come to the ball side of the middle area to keep guys like Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza from jumping lanes to that pass.
• L.A. might also pay more attention to Shane Battier, so asking him to shot fake and attack/reverse the ball is a good counter.
• Houston's best strength, as it relates to L.A.'s biggest weakness, is their focus and resolve. It is imperative to stay the course if L.A. starts well, as they have proven to be a team that, at least thus far, can slip into mind-numbing blandness. Seeing Houston fall behind big but come back even bigger would not be a surprise.
• Houston started the game looking to take the first good shot, rather than wait for a great one. That extra freedom helped them get off to a great start offensively. Guys like Battier and Brooks were aggressive, and they shot with confidence. Los Angeles helped them by playing defense as if the first 10 seconds of the clock did not matter. They should be ready to defend as soon as they change ends.
• Houston's ball screens were spaced out to perfection. And the screeners took pride in hitting the Lakers guards, forcing Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum to stay a little longer on their hedge. This gave the screener a chance to get away from the dribbler before getting the pass, and since Scola or Landry can shoot the jumper, a third Lakers defender had to sprint over to help. This action completely broke down the Lakers base defense, and allowed Houston to reverse the ball and get whatever shot they wanted. Think of it like this -- they used two players to occupy three defenders on the ball-screen action, leaving just two defenders to guard the other three offensive players on the other side of the floor. And because the spacing was perfect, the two couldn't cover the three. The defenders just had to hope that Houston would miss open shots. They didn't miss nearly enough.
• The Lakers doubled post catches, and zoned up behind it. But the bottom of the zone was not aware of cutters until they caught the ball. They need to be looking for those cutters earlier.
• No Lakers player took a lot of pride early on in aggressively guarding their man. Defense always starts on the ball.
• Gasol had some matchup advantages that L.A. mostly ignored. They'd throw him the ball in the middle of the paint, when he was surrounded. He's better in iso sets with shooters spaced opposite, especially when Chuck Hayes is out.
• The Lakers did not defend with urgency in the first half, and the problem was just as much mental as physical. When they are forced to switch initially to close people out in transition, they were often left with mismatches to deal with because they missed opportunities to switch back to their regular men. This was just pure laziness. They need to try and switch back whenever possible.
• L.A.'s bigs did not effectively slow down the ballhandler on ball screens. Brooks killed them on this. The bigs have to sit down and slide with him longer than they did. Their length will influence his shot even if he has them beat.
• Hayes picked up his third foul, and then Phil Jackson brought in Bynum alongside Gasol. L.A. had nothing going on inside though for them. No intent on hurting Houston in the paint, except for some Kobe Bryant drives.
• When it mattered, L.A. got smashed on the boards. Again. But that's what happens to a team that is casual in its overall effort. Teams that are casual about the overall rarely get specific about the details (like blocking out with power), so an improved desire to rebound better can help translate into better block-outs and ball chases.
• I thought if Brooks and Ron Artest played efficiently, the Rockets could win. Instead, it was Brooks and Battier (57 points on 32 shots), thanks to their outstanding aggressiveness. Now they have three guys to get big scoring from, when two will do.
• Can Houston play another almost perfect game?
• Jackson seems frustrated by his team and their lack of ability to play at a high level for more than a game or two, if that. And he allowed Game 4 to get out of hand, simply because he kept expecting his team to wake up. He can not afford to play that game in the always pivotal Game 5, and he knows that.
L.A. deserves exactly what they now have, thanks to an inexplicably poor effort on Sunday. There's no guarantee they would have won the game had they played well, as Houston was outstanding. But the fact that they got destroyed is indicative of how poor their effort was. Of course they will play better, and Houston will be hard pressed to match Game 4. Still, Houston's belief is very strong, as is their team, mentally and physically. I see this as a coin flip game. So I'm taking the home team, but for the second year in a row, I'll end up pulling for the hardest playing group of players in these playoffs.
Prediction: L.A. wins Game 5
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.