After dispatching the overmatched Utah Jazz in five games in the first round, the team now standing in the way of Los Angeles is the Houston Rockets; a team that has advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since way back in 1997.
Just about everybody is predicting that Los Angeles will defeat the Rockets...and with good reason.
The Lakers appear to have the more talented team, the more successful coach, and the overall best player in the series.
The Lakers also swept the season series from the Rockets, winning all four regular season meetings between the teams.
However, I believe that those predicting a quick and easy series win for the Lakers are mistaken.
There are several tough matchups and advantages that the Rockets can take advantage of in order to make Los Angeles work very hard to advance.
1. Force Los Angeles to double Yao Ming
Simply put, the Rockets cannot win this series unless the offense is rolling completely through Yao Ming in the middle.
In the four regular season games, the Lakers were content to play behind Yao and let him catch it in the post, and then bring the double team once the big man started to make his move toward the basket.
As evidenced mainly in Game One of the Rockets' first round series with Portland, Yao is an unstoppable force when he's guarded one on one.
The Lakers' twin towers of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum should be able to provide at least some resistance to Yao by themselves, but ultimately won't be enough to completely shut him down.
The Rockets should exploit the many mismatches presented by Yao and force the Lakers to try and make the Rockets get their points elsewhere.
Once the Lakers start trying to negate Yao, it'll be up to the Rockets' perimeter shooters to knock down open shots. Yao is a phenomenal passer, and, at 7'6", can see over the entire defense and find open teammates anywhere on the floor.
The Rockets will need players like Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, and Von Wafer to be hitting their open looks.
2. Use their depth to their advantage
Many talk about the depth of the Lakers, but the Rockets are arguably a deeper team.
Assuming Bynum starts, the Lakers' only consistent bench contributors are Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton if healthy. The second unit of the Rockets should be able to provide more of a boost.
Kyle Lowry is the perfect antithesis to Brooks, a stronger guard that has the ability to get himself to the line. Von Wafer is an explosive scorer that can shoot from deep as well as create his own shot, which is something the Rockets have been lacking with the disappearance and injury of Tracy McGrady.
Chuck Hayes, while undersized for a power forward at just 6'6", is so strong that he's one of the best post defenders in the entire league.
Opposing fours will try to post him up one on one, and are surprised to find that they struggle to back him down and get a good shot off.
Houston will sorely miss 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo in this series, who was lost with a knee injury in game two against Portland.
Carl Landry is another power forward who counters the craftiness of Luis Scola with supreme athleticism and surprisingly good shooting touch, and he should be able to help drag some of the Lakers' bigs away from the basket with his shooting range.
3. Limit production of Gasol and Odom
It might be in the best interest of the Rockets to actually let Kobe Bryant score all he wants to.
In the years when Kobe had Shaq and now with Gasol, Kobe scored more than he ever has, but his team had very little success.
If the Rockets are able to limit the productivity of Gasol, Odom, and to a lesser extent, Trevor Ariza.
Shane Battier typically does an admirable job of checking Bryant, but Kobe simply can't be completely shut down, especially over the course of a long playoff series.
4. Ron Artest must be able to score consistently
The Rockets were able to get by the Trail Blazers with Artest having a subpar offensive series, but they won't be able to beat the top seeded Lakers unless Artest is able to do damage on the offensive end at an efficient rate.
Too many times, when the Rockets' offense breaks down, Artest will dribble around and force an errant shot—very few of which end up being converted. Artest will have to let the offense come to him, and score when legitimate opportunities arise.
Yao should pick up most of the offensive slack, but Ron Artest must score 15-20 a night for the Rockets to have any chance.
While I still think the Lakers will ultimately win this series, the Rockets provide a tough matchup and are a very viable adversary.
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