by Graham Flashner
Given their speed and athleticism, and the matchup problems they pose, you’d think the Rockets would’ve at least been able to take one game off the Lakers this year. You’d think that, with the Lakers just back from the longest March trip in their history – seven games, 13 days – they’d come out flat and be ripe for the picking.
You’d think. Didn’t happen. Friday night, the Lakers polished off a 4-0 season sweep, winning 93-81 and owning the 4th quarter as they have in every one of those four victories. If the Rockets grab the 4th or 5th seed and win their first playoff series, they’ll likely draw the Lakers in the second round. This was not the way to send a message.
I want to talk to Shane Battier about the brilliant article Michael Lewis wrote about him in the New York Times Magazine proclaiming Battier as the premiere Kobe Bryant-stopper in the NBA.
Battier, though, is in deep stretching with a trainer, and begs off talking before the game.
That leaves Ron Artest, another Kobe nemesis, who got himself in trouble the last time the Lakers played Houston, trash-talking Bryant across the Toyota Center floor. Kobe, who had scored 6 points in a largely invisible first half up to that point, erupted for 31 in the second, 18 in a game-deciding 4th quarter.
It was time for Artest to fess up about that night, and he did, as only he can.
“I wanted to bring the best out in him,” Artest said with a slow smile. “He wasn’t having a good game, so I figured I’d try and see if he could play better. ‘Cause I like to measure myself against the best. It was fun, but I think it took away from the team a little bit.”
Did he have more in store for Kobe tonight? Artest shook his head sheepishly.
“I probably don’t see myself doing that again,” he said, to general laughter.
“I called him the worst player in the world,” Artest continued, and you wonder what he must think of Tracy McGrady. “That’s what I told him. I told him he was the worst player I’d seen in my life.
“[Kobe] had a bunch of great comebacks. He was ready.” Unfortunately, Artest would not divulge what witticisms Bryant might’ve offered.
The conversation continued. Picture Artest, jammed into a corner, with a dozen Chinese reporters (guess who they’re waiting to talk to) shoving TV cameras and tape recorders as close as they dare. Didn’t these people see the Palace Brawl? But Artest is unfailingly polite and patient.
Artest acknowledged that some players were scared to play him but that Kobe was never one of those players.
“It’s easy to talk to someone who’s going to back down to you,” he said. “It’s easy for a big guy to pick on a smaller guy. Some people might not talk to the guy who actually might kill them. So I like to talk to the guy who’s going to kill me.”
On the Lakers’ side, Sasha Vujacic talks about the hot seat that is the Lakers’ bench these days; hot as in, nobody playing particularly well and being under a microscope.
“In order to win the championship, we have to have our bench play up to the level it did last year, and we didn’t play up to that level at all,” said Sasha, referring to the Lakers’ recent trip. Might be mental, might be fatigue, but there’s no excuses. When we play the right way, there’s not one team that can beat us.
I ask Sasha about looking ahead to the NBA Finals and a possible rematch with the Celtics, the team he allegedly said he “hated” back on Dec. 25.
“I want to clarify one thing: I never said I hate the Celtics. Hate is a strong word. There’s just some feelings that you can’t explain. It’s me not wearing green all year.”
On the flat-screen, Lamar Odom chortles at the Cleveland-Orlando score: it’s 64-38, Magic. A Lakers win puts them a game behind the Cavs in the endless chase for home-court advantage throughout the Playoffs. Who says there isn’t meaningful basketball in April?
On the court, an encouraging sight for the Lakers: Andrew Bynum, his right knee protected by a large black brace, shooting in warm-ups, doing one-on-one drills with DJ Mbenga, smiling like a happy kid. Bynum’s projected return is April 12 vs. Memphis. Both of Bynum’s serious knee injuries – this year’s and last year’s – came in games against the Grizzlies. I just wanted to throw that out there.
The National Anthem is not sung live. Instead, the Lakers play Marvin Gaye’s stirring rendition that he sung at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983 in L.A.
Artest starts off on Lamar Odom; Battier is on Bryant. Michael Lewis’s methodical analysis details how Battier tries to exploit the weaknesses — such as they are — in Bryant’s game: less effective going left, shooting off a dribble instead of a pass, less dangerous if he can be kept out of the lane or off the baseline. “My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible,” Battier had said.
Kobe seems aware of the hype. Stealing an errant pass off a missed Lakers free throw, Kobe’s drive is blocked by Battier, and Kobe gets T’d up claiming Battier held him. When the Rockets get the ball, Kobe barely gives Battier an inch to breathe. But Battier’s a facilitator. He parks himself deep in the corner, waiting for the open three.
One of the recent criticisms of Artest is that he’s become overzealous with the three-point shots, as if trying to pick up the slack for T-Mac. Already, he’s missed two. But he rebounds one miss and zips a pass in to a cutting Yao for a three-point play. 16-14 Lakers.
Jordan Farmar, desperately trying to regain his mojo, takes on Yao on a running one-hander near the basket, and Yao swats it impatiently into the seats.
The Rockets have come out scrappy and chippy, grabbing, pushing, shoving, keeping the Lakers out of rhythm. Probably the best thing that happened to the Rockets this season was losing T-Mac; they’ve played .700 ball in his absence, and while they don’t have an automatic go-to guy — Yao needs too much help and Artest is too unpredictable – they can play smothering defense, and they have a lightning quick PG, Aaron Brooks, who’s a much better quarterback than his NFL namesake.
Kobe misses a three-pointer, a shot that he takes off the dribble from the right side. Just as Battier wanted it.
Yao hits feathery fade-away over Pau Gasol. There should be laws against a 7-6 man resorting to fade-away jumpers that can only be blocked with a pole vault. On the other side, Pau Gasol makes the mistake of trying to lob one handers over Yao’s long arms. It can’t feel good to be 7-0 and have to shoot over someone.
Sasha may not be shooting well, but he finds Gasol with a great backward flip leading to a jam. Rather than trying to play Yao one-on-one, Gasol is starting to wait for plays to develop, finishing shots just as Yao slides over to help.
Artest airballs a trey from the left corner. With a body like his, he should be punishing people. Watching him settle for threes is like watching Shaq settle for scoop shots.
Kobe returns with 8:42 left. He’s the only starter, alongside Luke Walton, DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell and Farmar. Mbegna sees more action tonight after Gasol, who’s been logging over 37 mpg since Bynum’s injury, voiced concerns over wearing down.
Mbenga dunks off a slick pass from Kobe. Then another. Then he makes a great block on a Kyle Lowry shot. All he’s missing is the Mutombo finger-wag. Mutombo, as it happens, is on the Rockets bench, where he will remain.
Artest finally nails a three-pointer, just in time to tie the game, 44-44.
Artest picks up Kobe on a switch – one of the few times they find themselves guarding each other. Kobe drives to the corner, waits for Yao to slide, then whips a pass to a cutting Gasol for a layup.
Kobe splits defense for a sickdiculous dunk, as Michael Tillery would say.
Another beautiful feed from Kobe to Gasol, 60-53 Lakers, first standing O of night, Lakers starting to look like best team in West again.
Season ticket-holding fans in section 104 sport T-shirts that say, “Bang With Benga”. Who knew the guy has a cult following?
Odom draws 4th foul, bailing out Aaron Brooks with 0:01 to go on the shot clock. Event though Odom stood with his hands raised and Brooks jumped into him, Brooks got the call. All Odom had to do was give him some space.
Brent Barry, turning back the clock, hits amazing flying one-hander down lane. Ten-point Lakers lead down to three, 67-64. Rockets won’t get any closer.
Artest, who’s found his shot, goes to the three-point well once too often. His miss leads to a long rebound, which leads to an outlet pass to a basket-hanging Josh Powell. 73-68 L.A.
That old reliable duo, Luke Walton to DJ Mbenga, for 77-71 lead. Except for Mbenga (4-7, 8 points) the bench has once again been awful tonight; a minus 22-point differential for Farmar, Luke, Sasha and Powell, and they combine to shoot 4-22.
Interesting stat from Lewis’s article: NBA teams whose lead is bigger than the minutes remaining in a game win 80 percent of the time. With 6:09 to play, the Lakers lead by 8.
Kobe applies the dagger: two three-pointers in a row, breaking the Rockets back, an 87-76 lead. Battier back to the bench with a resigned look. Kobe only scored 20, but he did it on a very efficient 11 shots, and was in control of the game all night.
With 1:30 to go, it’s all about the tacos, which Lakers fans have earned tonight.
“It’s never a fun night when you guard that guy,” says a weary Battier, talking about Kobe. Battier grades his own performance tonight as average. He calls the Rockets “an immature team in a lot of ways”, a young team still learning the ropes on the road. “In Phoenix, we didn’t bring our defense; we came here and didn’t bring our offense,” he says.
Battier won’t go as far to say the Rockets are a better team without T-Mac. “We’re at our best with a healthy McGrady. He’s a difference-maker in the fourth quarter, working the pick-and-roll. We don’t have that one guy who can create shots for us, but we still think we’re formidable.”
I look over to Yao’s corner. He’s blocked by the Great Wall of TV reporters.
On the winners’ side, Kobe smiles when asked about his early T on Battier.
“They’re a tough team and we’ve had our problems with them in the past and during the regular season,” Bryant said. “I wanted to send a message to my teammates and to the referees that we’re here to play, we’re not going to be out here just kind of going through the motions.
“If a guy’s going to grab my shirt, I’m going to let you know about it. It’s important to come out with a sense of urgency right from the top. We’re fighting for a bigger prize. It’s going to get chippy.”