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Pau Gasol Gives Houston Rockets Big Problem

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 12:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for a shot over Brian Cook #43 of the Houston Rockets in the first half of Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 12, 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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

He stepped on the court for the final 10 seconds of a first round dog fight at Toyota Center.

He hadn't played at any point during the game, and yet, here was Rick Adelman, calling on him to finish the biggest defensive stand of the night.

And stand Chuck Hayes did.

With bricked free throws and a late Rudy Fernandez trey forcing the Rockets to protect a tenuous one-point lead, Hayes gambled and left LaMarcus Aldridge on a fast break. He slid over and drew a clutch charge on All-Star Brandon Roy.

Even Roy conceded after the game that he had committed an offensive foul.

"He's incredible," Adelman said after the 89-88 Houston win. "He hasn't played the whole game. I put him in there, and he makes a play like that."

Most impact players engineer clutch offensive plays. For Hayes, physical, intelligent defense is the only way to do the job.

Maybe you have seen him shoot a free throw. His foul shot stroke looks like a train wreck at a Village People concert.

Enough about that unsightly hitch.

Hayes' defense is the reason he landed on another talent-infused roster in October.

Both Jeff Van Gundy and Adelman have entered training camps in which they gave Hayes no chance of making the cut or cracking the rotation.

He has showed up at each of those camps and surprised the coaches with his defensive acumen.

Sometimes, smarts can get you places.

With Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo out for the remainder of the playoffs, Hayes has again become a major rotation player.

Adelman, like Van Gundy, loves how Hayes handles himself and competes. The guy can tackle any challenge.

Except this one.

The Rockets return to Toyota Center for a game six that could be their final one of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers will try to eliminate them and move on to a greener pasture where the Denver Nuggets and the Western Conference Finals await.

The Rockets will try to kill all of the grass and make this contest ugly enough to stave off another celebration in Hollywood.

As Shane Battier would say, they must "muck it up."

With no Yao to man the middle or Mutombo finger wags, the 6' 6" Hayes must fill enormous shoes.

He will also have to do something few teams have been able to do since February 2008; Stop Pau Gasol.

Forget Andrew Bynum. Forget Lamar Odom. Forget Kobe Bryant, too.

None of those players would be on the doorstep of another conference final berth without Gasol.

His length, agility, passing prowess, and creative post game draws the defensive pressure that allows his teammates to run amok.

Call him soft. Call him finesse. Your team didn't stop him when it played the Lakers.

The Rockets have struggled as much as anyone to contain the suave Spaniard.

Yao was too flatfooted and slow to handle Gasol's quickness in the low block. Now, Hayes is too small to keep him from spinning to the basket.

Gasol scored 30 points in Sunday's rout, 18 of them in the fourth quarter.

Even the Celtics could not control him in the 2008 NBA Finals. They were lucky that his teammates opted to give him an average of only nine shots a game.

He drained 60 percent of his field goals, and most of them were high percentage looks.

The Lakers owe nothing to Andrew Bynum, and no one should credit such unrefined clay. That anyone would suggest he could be the key to a championship is ludicrous.

Gasol? Finesse? That's who the Lakers are.

The Lakers are offensive-minded and decide to play defense when the ball is going in the basket. Bynum cannot change that in one postseason.

The Rockets problem is Gasol, and how they solve his riddle will determine whether both teams board a plane for Los Angeles this weekend.

Gasol's 16-point tally in Game Five may not look monstrous in the box score. Most of the talk surrounded Bryant and Bynum.

However, his torrid start changed the game's complexion. He drew two quick fouls on Hayes, forcing the Rockets best post defender to the bench with more than eight minutes left in the first quarter.

On one sequence, Gasol stripped Luis Scola in the post, ran the length of the floor, and drove for an easy left-handed layup.

On the next, he sucked in two defenders and delivered a bullet pass to Kobe Bryant.

On another, he spun around Hayes for an uncontested score.

Phil Jackson knows Gasol can wear down the Rockets' thin front line, and that should worry Adelman.

Who knows which version of Bynum will appear for tonight's contest. How effective can Odom be with back spasms?

Gasol will be the man. The Rockets have to find a way to stick it to him.

The Lakers can lose with Bryant on a tear. He dropped 45 on the Phoenix Suns in a first round game a few years ago, and his team still lost.

Maybe that should be what the Rockets want to happen. Let Kobe go bananas and discourage him from passing to his teammates.

Yep. Sounds like a plan.

Except, maybe the unselfish and leadership-oriented Bryant that played in games three and five returns for Game Six. If so, the Rockets can start making those airline reservations to Acapulco or Cozumel.

Swine flu restrictions be damned.

The Rockets have a chance tonight because they boast the heart and resolve of a winner. Undermanned as they are, they will not allow their season to flame out without striking a few more matches.

They should play with fire and hope someone in purple and gold gets an early boo boo.

When the Lakers miss a horde of shots early and get banged around, they pout.

The Rockets need them to cry like manic-depressive supermodels.

In the center of this hopeful crying game will be Hayes, standing undersized with a tall task.

Adelman will again ask him to slow down a player who fits Jackson's triangle system perfectly.

Gasol may never be a franchise leader or a banger known for his physical defense. However, as the second best player on the versatile Lakers, he rocks and rolls.

If he gets the ball often and early tonight, the Rockets will finish the evening singing the blues.

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