It shouldn’t matter who the Lakers face in the Western Conference, Los Angeles should win. They are the best team in the conference hands down, and over seven games they would have to beat themselves not to advance.
But the NBA playoffs are all about matchups, and in the next round Houston is an easier path to the finals for LA. Thursday night when game six between Portland and Houston tips off, Lakers fans should be Rockets fans — just like all of China.
The Lakers biggest advantage against Houston is when the Rockets would have the ball — they have nobody who can create their own shot. That was Tracy McGrady’s role, but he wasn’t very good at it anymore and frankly the Rockets are better off with him injured. But that means in pressure situations, the Rockets struggle to score consistently.
Their offense largely consists of getting the ball down low to Yao Ming — and that’s a good option, he’s the best center in the world right now. But he can be defended, and that’s where Andrew Bynum comes in. While he struggled against the smaller lineups of Utah last series, what he will be asked to do against Yao is more his style — put a body on the big man and make him uncomfortable. Keep him from getting too many rebounds. Like any great player, you can’t stop Yao, but you can slow him if you make him work.
And that is the key with Yao, run him and make him work. He tires easily and you can wear him down. The key is to make him work hard on defense with centers who run the floor well and push him, and have your wings drive into his body and force him to move (and maybe draw a foul). Portland has been terrible at all of this — Yao is often beating Joel Pryzbilla and Greg Oden down the floor. Bynum and Gasol are much faster.
The Trailblazers, on the other hand, have a host of players who can create their own shots — a much tougher matchup for the Lakers. Really, the Blazers look a lot like the Lakers — Brandon Roy plays the Kobe Bryant role and the primary drive guy, Lamarcus Aldridge is in the versatile big man Pau Gasol role, Greg Oden is the big Andrew Bynum guy in the paint, Steve Blake is Derek Fisher, and so on. With Oden and Pryzbilla, the Blazers have two legitimate seven footers who can match the Lakers inside, and are happy to play physical.
The Blazers are way, way more athletic than Houston, and it is the athletic teams that give the Lakers problems. Also, the Blazers are a jump shooting team, and the Lakers defense is predicated on protecting the key and letting teams have jumpers — which is why Portland can score on Los Angeles.
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To be fair, Houston is a far better defensive team than Portland — because they have good wing defenders in Shane Battier and Ron Artest, and if you get past them the 7’6” arms of Yao await to block your shot.
But Kobe has shown before that no matter what people write in the New York Times, he can score on Shane Battier and score plenty. The Lakers can (and have in the meetings this year) worn down Yao and gotten him in foul trouble.
Bottom line — the Lakers swept all four games from the Rockets this season, they split the two with Portland. The Lakers haven’t won on the road in Portland in eight years.
The Lakers should and would still win a series against Portland, but it would be a lot harder. In this case, Lakers fans should want to take the path of least resistance.
Kurt Helin cannot shoot over Yao Ming, which is why he just blogs about it at Forum Blue & Gold