Thursday, May 07, 2009

Rockets Round II: The Empire Strikes Back

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Kobe Bryant is Darth Vader. Phil Jackson is Emperor Palpatine. Sasha Vujacic is Jar Jar Binks if Jar Jar were a Jedi gone to the Dark Side. Because he sure pulled the Jedi mind trick on Von Wafer. They were former teammates, the have history. It's obvious. And Jar Jar already knows how to get under any player's skin--but particularly Wafer because of how much Wafer wants to show up the Lakers. But Von needs to be careful. He built an NBA career with this season. He can't go and ruin it now because he can't let Jar Jar's antics go.

Back to the Lakers as Empire analogy... it doesn't even have to be science fiction. The Lakers, like any empire in history with their grandiosity and prestige, merely expected to get their way. Game 1 was a rude awakening and, of course, in Game 2, Vader and the Lakers had to regulate with a heavy hand. Which means shoulders, elbows and knees, oh my.

The Houston Rockets, you see, play in as the unassuming working class. They work hard. Yes, they are physical, they play rough but they are not dirty. They don't do what Vader, Jar Jar and Derek Fisher... let's say, Boba Fett (yes, I know he's technically just a bounty hunter but isn't his head shaped a lot like Fett's helmet?) are willing to do assert their dominance. That's what makes the Lakers the Lakers. They do these things because a.) for some misguided reason, they think they need to and b.) they can get away with it. Such are the spoils for fame and prestige. Kobe can get away with anything--and Artest can't even have a "friendly" conversation without getting ejected--but then again, so can Rajon Rondo, so who the heck knows?

The point is, the Lakers showed they will play dirty to win or NEED to play dirty to win. They ARE cheap shot artists. That's what they do. The Houston Rockets are not and they shouldn't start just because L.A. sets the precedent. Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley summed it up perfectly in what may be the first time the TNT after-party has said everything there needs to be said about this game. If the Lakers think Houston is going to be intimidated, they're in for another rude awakening. The Rockets are "pit-bulls." They've surrounded Yao with pit-bulls (Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry) who can take whatever you dish and keep coming back. They're Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti all rolled up into one. Yes, both bouts of epic carnage in one. That may be overstating it, but you get the idea.

And, then there's what Chuck and Kenny said about Kobe. He better have three more of these kind of games if the Lakers want to win. Because even this one wasn't easy--they gave it all they had and won ONE game with the likelihood they'll lose Derek Fisher for at least the next and possibly Kobe Bryant. "That was a hard 40 points," spoke the Chuck Wagon and he's right but to be sure, if anyone's up for it, it's Kobe.

Houston, for their part, won't retaliate, shouldn't retaliate. They'll just keep playing their game, hard and physical. It's understood, consider what Artest had to say about the physical play, "we're naturally tough, we're naturally like that." As if to say he (and Battier) know the Lakers are just pretending, merely acting tough because they're manhood has been questioned in the media. And, like most instances when someone is trying this hard to draw a reaction from someone else, they reveal more about themselves. The Lakers have resorted to this; their confidence is waning. So, go for the jugular. Push them ever closer to the brink. Push them over.

This is the series to watch now.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Yao Returns in his Greatest Game

The buzzer sang with the sweet timbre heard only by fans of the winning team and shortly after it ended, the sound dimmed. Everything was quiet, not just the TV or TNT's post-game show, because it never is, but everything including that was quiet. And, I could hear only a continuous, low hum. Shock. And I've been in shock all day.

Trying to clear my head enough to write anything substantive about last night's upset win over the Lakers had been a fruitless exercise until now. It was quite simply a joy to watch. The kind that Rockets fans haven't really had a chance to get used to. But after a first round series win and an upset win away from home, we should start.

In Yao Ming's 7 seasons, this was the greatest single game of his NBA career (thus far). Whatever the Rockets needed him to do, he did, but it was more than just that. L.A. couldn't put him down. After what was at the time a heart-stopping collision with Kobe late in the 4th, he came back and finished the game. I have to admit I thought it was over--that once again it was too good to be true. But Yao rose, like a phoenix with a clipped wing, but he rose and he came back and he helped Houston win this game.

And, in that moment, Yao was reborn. Houston fans were baptized. Yao did what the great sports heroes of Houston's past have done. More than his fair share, more than just what was expected of him. He overcame adversity and what had to be deep and subconscious fears about that knee and he willed Houston to a win. If he can get to Game 2 without any complications and finish this series, win or lose, the demons, the little mogwais embedded in Yao's structural integrity may finally be banished. And Houston fans may look brightly to the future.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Danny Moloshok