Tuesday May 5th, 2009

When Yao Ming had to be helped off the floor to the locker room with an apparent knee injury Monday, the Lakers might have known trouble was on the way. In another second half of another opening game 11 months ago, Paul Pierce returned from an injury that saw him taken off the court in a wheelchair to nail them with three-pointers while establishing Boston's control of the NBA Finals.

In this case, Yao, too, returned in a hurry from his knee injury, but, of course, he didn't beat the Lakers with threes. Instead, he finished Houston's 100-92 upset in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals by going 6-for-6 from the foul line upon returning from the locker room with four minutes remaining. The Lakers had closed within 85-81 when Yao responded with eight of his postseason-best 28 points in the final 2:24.

Pending the health of his right leg following his knee-to-knee collision Monday with Kobe Bryant, Yao's ability to exploit the free-throw line is going to be a big issue in this series.

"The whole key is getting into the bonus," Rockets forward Shane Battier explained when I was around the team in March. "When we get into the bonus, Yao becomes the best center in basketball and a top-five player in the game -- it's because of the numbers, because he's so good at the free-throw line."

Battier was basing his claim on stats compiled by the unique front-office staff of general manager Daryl Morey, who declines to say how many analysts he has hired to break down the NBA statistically because he doesn't want to create a standard for rival teams.

"It's a big factor for us," Morey conceded of Yao's foul shooting. "Yao goes from being a very, very good player to a great player when we're in the bonus."

The issue of Yao's ability to exploit foul trouble is especially relevant in this series because of the vulnerability of L.A. center Andrew Bynum, who has struggled in the playoffs since returning in April from a midseason knee injury. Bynum is averaging 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game in the playoffs, and in Game 1 he was held to 15 minutes after drawing two fouls in the opening three minutes.

The Lakers will need the 285-pound Bynum -- their biggest player by far -- not only in this series against the 7-foot-6 Yao but also in a potential NBA Finals against the top-heavy Cavaliers, who have 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 6-11 Anderson Varejao, 6-10 Joe Smith and 6-9 Ben Wallace.

Bynum's troubles also affect All-Star Pau Gasol, who must shift inside to play center in place of Bynum. Gasol is more valuable to the Lakers as a power forward who can exploit seams and make plays for others; when pushed inside against bigger centers, he is forced to become more of a blue-collar player, and the Lakers lose some of his creativity.

Another issue to watch throughout this series is the role of the Rockets' young point guards. As much as they helped Orlando by sending Rafer Alston to the Magic to replace Jameer Nelson at the trading deadline in February, the Rockets believed that three-team deal improved them with the acquisition of backup guard Kyle Lowry from Memphis. Whether the point is being run by starter Aaron Brooks or Lowry, the Rockets are now able to pressure opponents and push the ball all game long.

"Part of the Lowry trade was that he's another guy that gets to the line," Morey said, referring to Lowry's ability to draw fouls and put Yao in position to exploit the bonus. "The Lowry trade really clarified how we want to play at both ends. We can push the ball with our point guards up the floor, and if we can't get anything in transition then we get it to Yao [in the half court]. If they're either denying Yao heavily or double-teaming him, we can get spot-up shots out of that. And then late in the shot clock we can run high pick-and-roll with our guards. It's going to be hard to stop."

It's even harder for the Lakers because backup point guard Jordan Farmar -- a big contributor in last year's playoffs -- has given them 3.5 minutes in three playoff games while dealing with injuries this season.

For all of these issues, the Lakers still had their chances to win on a Monday night when Bryant needed 31 shots for his 32 points. It will be interesting to see how L.A. attempts to free him against the defense of Battier and Ron Artest (another player who created foul problems while going for 21 points and seven assists in Game 1). All of a sudden, the Lakers know what they're up against.

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