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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Sports

Kobe impedes Rockets’ title path


Houston’s inability to stop Bryant from taking over could prove costly.

The Houston Rockets recent climb into first place in the Southwest Division, and second place in the Western Conference, has given fans a lot to be excited about, but let’s not order championship T-shirts and hats just yet.

Sure, the Rockets have posted wins over good teams, such as the Spurs, Celtics, Hornets and Jazz, but haven’t we seen this before?

Last season, the Rockets defeated all those teams except the Celtics twice and knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers – the eventual champions of the West – at the peak of their 22-game win streak. We all know how that season ended.

This year’s squad has a healthy Yao and appears to have a much better shot to contend for a conference title than any of the McGrady-led Rocket squads. There is just one team from L. A. that stands in their way.

The Lakers are 3-0 against Houston this season, including a demoralizing 102-96 win on March 11 at Toyota Center in which the Lakers erased an 11-point halftime deficit and Kobe Bryant torched Ron Artest and the rest of the Rockets defense for 37 points. By the way, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum did not play in that game.

‘They took control of the game and finished it off,’ Rockets head coach Rick Adelman said after the loss. ‘Kobe took it over.’

Bryant is the main reason why the Rockets will not win the Western Conference this season. Although it may be a stretch to say Houston will get far enough to face the Lakers in the NBA Playoffs, it is not a stretch to say the best player in the NBA will not let any person or team stop him from leading the Lakers to NBA Finals for the second consecutive season.

Bryant had 33 points the first time the two teams met in Houston this season (Jan. 13), including a cold-blooded trey with 27 seconds left, which turned a one-point Rockets advantage into a 102-100 Lakers lead. Thirteen of those 33 points came in the fourth quarter, when Bryant usually takes over the game.

This is not the only thing that makes Bryant so deadly. Check out how he gets his teammates involved in ballgames. Bryant had only four assists in the Jan. 13 victory, but five of his teammates scored in double figures. Bryant’s mere presence forces teams to spend time trying to figure out how to stop him. Rarely does it work in favor for those teams, since Bryant now has enough talent around him to win games without taking over.

Only two of Bryant’s teammates scored in double-figures when the teams met on March 11, but three others had eight points. One of the players who scored in double figures was Josh Powell, who is averaging only 4.4 points per game this season, but scored a season-high 17 points in the Lakers’ 102-96 win. Powell also recorded a career-high of 22 points against the Rockets in April 2008.

Bryant spent most of the first half distributing the ball to his fellow Lakers, allowing them to establish their presence. Once guys like Powell and Pau Gasol began to score, the Rockets had no choice but to respect them.

In the second half, Bryant took over, especially after he and Artest were involved in an altercation that ended with both players receiving technical fouls. He frustrated Artest so much that a game between two teams became a game between two players, and Bryant almost always wins a one-on-one matchup.

The Rockets have no chance at winning the West unless someone else can knock off Bryant and the Lakers. But other teams don’t stand much of a chance either. Shane Battier and Artest have shut down Kobe before, but it appears he has gotten the best of them this season.

Maybe this will change when the teams have their final meeting of the season April 3 in Los Angeles, but if Bryant torches the Rockets yet again there’s no reason to panic. After all, he is the best basketball player on this planet.


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