Sunday, May 10, 2009
Time for Take Off
No Yao. No T-Mac. Rafer Alston was traded long ago. And as good as Ron Artest has been with the Rockets, he’s been ejected from two of the three games in the Rocket’s series with the Lakers, both Houston losses. So who would have thought that the Rockets, in a game minus Yao, McGrady, Alston, and where Artest scored 8 points on 4-19 shooting, would beat the Lakers by double digits, 99-87, a margin that was nowhere near indicative of the dominance Houston displayed.
Three unsung heroes to the Rockets’ season, three role players, made a huge difference in today’s game. Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola usually fly under the radar set by all those mentioned above, but without them, they showed how valuable they are.
Brooks performed well enough in the regular season that Houston’s front office felt comfortable enough trading Alston, handing Brooks the starting point guard position, and still being a title contender. Battier, drafted five spots behind Kwame Brown in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft, developed into one of the top perimeter defenders in the game, has a high basketball IQ, and is one of the hardest workers in the league. Scola, an Argentinian import, has been a great compliment to Yao Ming in the post. These three shined today, showcasing their abilities without their more famous teammates.
Battier got the Rockets off to a fast start, scoring 12 points in the first quarter, including three 3-pointers. He finished with 23 points, nearly 16 points above his season average and 13 above his career average. Battier’s NBA All-Defensive second team skills were on display as he was part of a tandem that held Kobe Bryant to 15 points on 7-17 shooting.
Scola manned the paint efficiently even without the 7’6” Ming. He pulled down 14 rebounds—12 defensive—five more than his season average. Scola completed the double-double, also putting in 12 points. Even though forward Chuck Hayes played good, hard defense against Lakers center Pau Gasol, Gasol got to the hoop much easier in the fourth quarter when Scola sat. The Rockets tough defense, spearheaded by Battier on the perimeter and Scola’s presence in the paint, forced the Lakers into earning every shot they took and kept them out of the key for easy layups and dunks.
Brooks was the star of the show. He used his impressive speed on offense to keep the Lakers’ defense off balance, and even snuck behind a sleeping defense to tip in an alley-oop to end the third quarter. Brooks put up a career-high 34 points, well above his 8.8 career total and 11.2 season total. Equally amazing as Brooks’ tip-in was his range, dropping a number of 3-pointers from well beyond the arc. The way he was playing, it seemed like he couldn't miss.
The performances from these three role players keyed a complete team effort. The defense worked the Lakers into taking difficult shots and keeping them away from the basket. On offense, Houston had impeccable ball movement, rotating the point of attack instead of forcing it through one person, and continually made the extra pass, finding the open man behind a lagging Lakers defense. Along with great ball movement was great off-ball movement, with players making great cuts and moving into open space for easy shots. The Rockets also hustled more, beating the Lakers to the floor for every loose ball.
The Rockets performance was impressive, especially considering who they were missing. While it is just one game, and they still need to win two more to win the series, this win was huge. The momentum shifted in the Rockets’ favor. They kept themselves in the series, rather than losing and going back to Los Angeles down 3-1. With a great team effort, and key role players stepping up to fill the shoes of their teammates, the Rockets look to be in good shape, at least to continue to compete at a high level.
It is said that the playoffs are where stars are born. It’s the league’s biggest stage, and performing well can make you a household name (how many people knew who Chauncey Billups was before 2004?). Scola, Battier, and Brooks have had their breakout game. If they continue to play like they did today, expect them to create their own legacies.
Aaron Brooks: AP Photo/ Don Ryan
Shane Battier: AP Photo/ Chris Carlson
Luis Scola: AP Photo/ Eric Gay
Game highlights. Video from YouTube.