Picked by many to win in at least five games, the Lakers came into the series as the hands-down favorite to win the Western Conference, if not the NBA championship.
However, on Monday night, the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets marched into Hollywood and just kept doing what they have been doing for months now: winning.
It wouldn't be fair to the Rockets to say that Houston "stole" this game from the Lakers, because stealing implies that it was once in possession of somebody else. The Rockets led Game 1 just about from wire-to-wire, keeping all of Los Angeles' firepower and an energized Staples Center crowd in check for 48 minutes.
Every time the Lakers would mount a little run of unanswered points, Houston would counter with a spurt of their own, displaying the grit and toughness that helped them to dispatch Portland in six games in the first round, despite again not having home-court advantage.
Houston was able to essentially do whatever it wanted on both ends of the court, with very little opposition from the Lakers.
The Rockets wanted to take advantage of Los Angeles' strategy of letting Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol play behind Yao Ming one-on-one in the post at the beginning of the game, and they were able to establish this very early on.
The Rockets were pounding the ball down to their big man, and there was a very early payoff, with Bynum picking up two quick fouls less than three minutes into the game. This forced the shorter Gasol to try and check Yao.
In order to potentially win this series, the Rockets needed Ron Artest to be the offensive force that he's capable of being. On Monday night, brand new hairdo and all, Artest delivered.
Artest played very in-control, scoring 21 points on 8-15 shooting, going three-for-six behind the arc. He also led the Rockets with seven assists. Often times, he was matched up with Trevor Ariza, whom Artest has a significant strength advantage over. Instead of forcing too many long jumpers, Ron was taking it to the basket and using his bigger body to create easier opportunities for himself.
At halftime, with the Rockets ahead by three, Houston head coach Rick Adelman says that he told point guard Aaron Brooks to be more aggressive and use his supreme speed to his advantage. From that point on, Brooks obliged, continually running circles around 34-year-old Laker point guard Derek Fisher for easy buckets.
Some of the Rockets' role players were absolutely essential to game one's success as well, most notably, Shane Battier. The renowned "Kobe stopper" did allow Bryant to score 32 points, but on just 14-31 shooting from the floor, with five total free-throw attempts (of which he converted four).
Chuck Hayes, 6'6" post-defense extraordinaire, made several big plays in his six minutes of court time, including impressive defensive stops against Gasol and Bynum, as well as two offensive rebounds that led to Rocket baskets.
Reserve point guard Kyle Lowry, in just 17 minutes, totaled six points, four rebounds, and two assists, while helping play stellar defense. Carl Landry scored seven points in 3-4 shooting in just 12 minutes.
The Rockets were able to win with Von Wafer, their most explosive reserve scorer, not scoring a single point.
The most important thing for the Rockets was keeping Lakers not named Kobe Bryant off the scoreboard.
Pau Gasol, who averaged about 19 points per game during the regular season, was held to 14 in 44 minutes on just 6-14 shooting from the field. Reserve Lamar Odom had nine points, with most of them stemming from his four offensive rebounds and easy put-backs. Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, and Derek Fisher were essentially non-factors for Los Angeles.
While the Lakers will undoubtedly make several adjustments and come out more energized in game two, the Rockets' game plan must remain consistent with what they were able to do in the first game.
While Bryant shooting 14-31 every game for the rest of the series is highly unlikely, the Houston Rockets must feel very good about what they were able to succeed with in Game One.
It will be very interesting to see how the Rockets are able to respond to a Lakers team that is likely to come out playing with a ton of energy in game two on Wednesday night.
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