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Rockets-Lakers: How Houston Can Retake Series Command

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 8, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 06:  Ron Artest #96 of the Houston Rockets is ejected by referee Joe Crawford in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 6, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets lost more than their cool Wednesday night. With a 111-98 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, they surrendered command of the series.

The team’s primary assignment as the scene shifts to Toyota Center this weekend: get it back.

When the Rockets fell apart in the third and fourth quarters in game two, the edge of the underdogs disappeared from the Staples Center. That mighty edge is why Houston should win this series.

No one, including this writer, projected this semifinal would return to Texas tied. No one, that is, except the Rockets.

Yes, folks, I just wrote that a 54-win team should beat a 65-win team that began its season with a championship-or-bust mantra.

Lakers fans will call me a homer or a Kobe Bryant “hater.” Decry the above prediction all you want. You will not change my change of heart.

I don’t hate Kobe. I love his competitiveness and his courage. No other NBA player plays with more fearlessness.

Why then, am I now suggesting that last season’s MVP could go home in the second round?

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Game one altered everything. In one, stunning 100-92 victory, the Rockets showed every reason why many projected in October they might be the team to derail the Lakers. Even sans scorer du jour Tracy McGrady, the team looked like it belonged.

Despite 18 turnovers and a dismal shooting night from behind the arc, the Rockets persevered and finally answered that fourth quarter bell, outscoring the Lakers 30-25.

Let me be clear. The Lakers swept the season series. They won twice at Toyota Center, and another triumph could shuffle the odds again.

Still, the Rockets are too tough and prideful to let one guy’s mission ruin their season. Does any Laker besides Kobe Bryant need to win a title this year?

He believes he needs to hoist at least one trophy without Shaq to cement his legacy. The Rockets can send him a message in the next week.

Buddy, that asphalt was poured long ago.

To retake command, the Rockets must learn from Wednesday’s meltdown. Yes, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant threw the cheap shots. But, this is the team that said at the series outset that it liked physicality.

When Los Angeles decided to give the supposed wrestlers a body slam, Houston lost it in many ways.

The even-tempered Fisher decked Scola on a needless play. One of the classiest gentlemen in NBA history did something unbecoming of a player’s union president.

He deserved a suspension for his intentional, boneheaded flagrant foul, and he will return for game four determined not to blow it again.

It happens. Get over it.

Bryant elbowed Ron Artest in the throat. The dangerous play merited at least a fine and a flagrant foul, but what Artest did after it is more unacceptable.

Instead of taking the hit, as a veteran leader should, with a nine point game still in the balance, he charged at Bryant like a bull in a china shop.

He may insist that he was calmly telling Bryant to lay off the illegal contact.

“I was letting him know who he was hitting,” he said. “You don’t hit Ron Artest.”

Yes Ron Ron—third person reference to yourself and all—we know you don’t back down.

Except this time, with your 26-point contribution through three quarters invaluable, you should have.

Artest snaked through defenders and scored at the rim. He threw in several, off-balance treys. His grizzly defense keyed a 34-18 second quarter turnaround. After jumping out to a 14-point lead, the Lakers found themselves tied at 57 with the Rockets.

Such poise is why Houston should not fear its towering opponents. Los Angeles did lose 17 times in 82 games, and it can lose four times in a postseason series.

The Rockets can prove tonight that game one was no fluke. The Lakers may use Bryant’s illness and a long layover as excuses for that defeat.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, slammed the Atlanta Hawks in game one after the same amount of rest.

The Rockets are better than the Hawks, but the point stands.

If the Lakers were as superior as everyone thought when this match began, they would have conquered the first contest comfortably.

Instead, the Rockets reminded them that they had been close at the start of every fourth quarter.

Now, with a chance to shock the order of the basketball universe, they must show again they have learned how to finish.

Reasons to believe they can are numerous. The Lakers could muster no answer for Carl Landry in game two’s first half. Explosive reserve Von Wafer is due for a double-figure scoring night.

Yao will bust his enormous butt to get off more shots and play better. Artest can score in the post anytime he wants.

Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks will get all the makeable shots they can handle, even if the Lakers bigs cut off any lanes to the basket.

If the overreaction to non-basketball plays continues, the Rockets would then admit that the Lakers are tougher. Why do that when the blood, scars and bruises say otherwise?

These Rockets can regain their composure, and the man to lead them is Shane Battier.

In his three years with the organization, he has chased Bryant around the court many times and never yapped about it.

He doesn’t brag or claim superiority when he helps his team emerge victorious with stifling defense.

He knows that no one stops Kobe Bryant, but he makes it difficult on the future Hall of Famer.

The one player who has every right to manifest frustration into retaliation can be counted on not to do it.

Bryant twice taunted Shane Battier after ridiculous makes in game two and earned a technical foul for one of his arrogant displays. Unlike Artest, Battier did not respond when goaded.

Battier never responds or plays head games with curse words.

The one who holds together the Rockets locker room must do it again. His teammates should watch how unfazed he is when Bryant drops 40 on him.

Hey guys, a great player just made great plays.

It made it tough. It happens. Get over it.

To pull off the shocker that now seems righteous, Houston’s hotheads need to cool it.

It feels like sweltering summer around the Gulf Coast.

Even an inferno has ice cubes.

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