It seemed inconceivable that the Lakers could play any worse than they had in Game 1. But the Rockets made certain that they did.
With Yao Ming out, it looked like the Lakers thought that all they had to was to show up and the Rockets would surely crash. But it turned to be the Lakers who never got off the ground.
Indeed, the tone was set on L.A.'s very first possession when Trevor Ariza fumbled the ball, wasn't sure whether to try and rescue it or not and wound up making a foolish, blind pass that turned into a Houston layup
After that miscue, Houston's blitzkrieg was relentless.
As ever, the Lakers' defense was virtually helpless in attempting to blunt the effectiveness of Houston's high screen-and-rolls. No matter what they did, the visitors couldn't prevent Aaron Brooks from turning the corner. And when the Lakers dropped the strong-side wing into the paint to help seal the basket, Brooks put on the jets and put up a layup or else kicked out an assist-pass to his abandoned teammate. On one occasion, Brooks foreswore penetrating in favor of simply stepping back and casting up another successful three-ball.
The Lakers' rotations were horrid every which way — in the lane, in failing to close out open shooters and in leaving the Rockets' bigs unattended under the rim. Overall, L.A. was alternately out-quicked, out-hustled and downright bullied by Houston's ferocious defense.
Not that L.A.'s offensive efforts were any better. They were pressured into poor passes, miserable shots, an almost complete absence of either ball or player movement and settling too quickly for jumpers. Missing seven layups didn't help either.
Late in the game, the Lakers tried to get the ball out of Brooks' hands by two-timing him (with Pau Gasol) just as he crossed the timeline with only minimal benefits accruing.
Early on, Gasol tried to attack Chuck Hayes in the pivot by bumping and grinding, but the much shorter Hayes proved to be immovable. Only when Gasol turned, faced and went did he put points on the scoreboard. A classic case of too little, too late, but an auger of what will surely be incorporated into L.A.'s game plan on Tuesday.
As in Game 3, Kobe had a hard time getting to the rim against Houston's swarming defense. That's why 14 of his 17 shots — and six of his seven buckets — were jumpers. And that's also why he failed to shoot a free throw.
Derek Fisher spent his playing time chasing Brooks.
Lamar Odom's daylight was limited by his suffering a bad fall, but while he was on the court, his contributions — especially on defense — were barely noticeable.
Luke Walton is supposed to be a superior passer, but included among his four turnovers were some incredibly errant passes.
Trevor Ariza was a non-factor.
Sasha Vujacic continued to hoist clunkers.
Andrew Bynum played like he was still in high school.
Jordan Farmar did hustle and put some juice into the Lakers' otherwise moribund efforts.
Led by Gasol's 18 fourth-quarter points (he totaled 30 for the game), the Lakers did win garbage time — and succeeded in cutting a 29-point deficit to 12.
Indeed, this game reprised the lack of physicality and almost total reliance on finesse that ultimately doomed L.A. in last year's Finals against the rough-and-tough Celtics.
In truth, the Lakers played with no heart, no hustle and no intensity. So the profound humiliation of being beaten so thoroughly was well deserved.
Except for a bummer offensive performance by Ron Artest — he made only 2 of his 10 jumpers — the Rockets were individually and collectively awesome.
Brooks was a dynamo, scoring from near and far to the tune of 34 humongous points.
Shane Battier played his usual adhesive defense against Kobe but also took advantage of the Lakers' laissez-faire defense by dropping five treys and generally shooting the lights both out and on.
With Hayes inserted into the lineup in lieu of Yao, Houston's defense was much more active, Gasol didn't have to be doubled and the middle was unclogged on offense. That's why Brooks, Kyle Lowry and Von Wafer were able to zip hoopwards so often.
Artest, Hayes and Luis Scola dominated the rebounding department and also seemed to come up with every loose ball in the lane.
Moreover, the Rockets were totally unselfish — rarely missing an opportunity to make the extra passes that led to so many open shots.
In short, the Rockets displayed every characteristic that the Lakers lacked: hustle, toughness, passion and intelligence.
In Game 4, the Rockets demonstrated that they have the heart of champions. Game 5 will offer the Lakers their chance to ace the latest gut-check.