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Rockets' fourth-quarter domination of Lakers five games in the making

The final stats didn't tell the whole story. They never do with the Rockets, a team that has shined since losing its leading scorer (Tracy McGrady) and is captained by a player (Shane Battier) who averages around seven points and five rebounds a game.

As Rockets coach Rick Adelman stood outside the visitor's locker room before his team shocked the Lakers 100-92 (RECAP | BOX) to take Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal, he smiled and shook his head when reminded that his team wasn't able to beat the Lakers in the regular season, losing all four games. It was the look of a man who knew there were more to those results than the final box score.

"The only thing that was consistent in those games was in the fourth quarter they hurt us," Adelman said. "In the fourth quarter, Kobe generally came out and took over that quarter or at least controlled it and they turned their defensive intensity up. They really took us out of things and we really showed our youth."

It was a point of emphasis for Adelman before the game, who reminded his players that they were in position to beat the Lakers in all four games, leading in two and being within two possessions in the others, before being outscored 127-80 in the final period.

With that in mind, the Rockets knew they couldn't have picked a better time to play the Lakers. Not only was Los Angeles coming off a one-week layoff after beating Utah, but it was winning games by compiling big leads and fading at the end. Adelman told his Rockets that if they could "stay within shouting distance" of the Lakers, things would be different this time around. This Lakers team wasn't closing out games like it had during the season.

He was right. The Rockets not only lead for most of the game but finally outscored the Lakers 30-25 in the fourth quarter, never trailing late in the game.

The game plan for the Rockets was simple. Even Battier, who shadowed Bryant for most of the game, used one of Lakers coach Phil Jackson's favorite words in describing their style. "We are not going to run with these guys. They are so good offensively that we had to muck it up," he said. "We did a great job of controlling the tempo."

The Rockets wanted to force the Lakers into taking tough shots from the perimeter by playing aggressive defense. They wanted the Lakers to earn their points and not compile 20-plus points from the free throw line -- like they did against Utah. They also wanted to put Bryant (32 points, 31 field goal attempts) in a situation where he felt the need to do too much, and thus, try to take over the game.

As the game progressed, it was becoming clear that the Lakers were stuck in the Rockets' trap and would never be able to break away.

"We understood that [Bryant] wasn't going to be making any more plays for the guys around him," Rockets guard Brent Barry said. "I think he decided to put the team up on his shoulders and we've seen that time and time again from Kobe Bryant and we decided to tighten the screws. It was a credit to Shane. Every time he's turning around, he's seeing No. 31."

At that moment, Barry turned around and saw Battier, who had just gotten out of the shower and was changing in the locker next to him.

"See, he's all over the place," he said. 'He's even right behind me, as I speak."

Yao Ming. The sight of Yao going down and grabbing his right knee after being bumped by Bryant late in the game no doubt caused everyone in Houston to collectively hold their breath. After all, it was the same knee Yao broke a couple years ago, causing him to miss 34 games. But this was a different Yao. As he was being helped off the court and into the locker room by athletic trainer Keith Jones, he refused to go into the corridor, wincing as he tried to prove that he was fit to play. He quickly turned around as Jones pleaded with him to get it checked and instead checked himself back into the game. He then proceeded to hit a jump shot and four free throws to put the game away. It was an emotional finish to what was a stellar game for Yao, who had team highs of 28 points and 10 rebounds.

Lamar Odom. He might not be a starter against the Rockets as he was at the end of the Jazz series (Andrew Bynum will start against Yao), but the Lakers will need more from Odom than nine points and five rebounds if they are going to beat Houston. The bench as a whole struggled; excluding Odom, four players combined for nine points.

Shane Battier. The final stats never do Battier (six points, three rebounds) any justice. He is a tenacious defender and is able to get through to his teammates and into the heads of his opponents. Bryant, who was battling the flu, elbowed Battier after the ball was stolen from him and looked frustrated the whole game. "He did a fantastic job on Kobe, he was always there," Barry said. "He was on him the whole night, finding out what flavor gum he was chewing."

25 to 12. The Rockets made 25-of-29 free throw attempts, including 10-of-10 from Yao, while the Lakers made only 12-of-19. Aside from a 13-point difference, the disparity showed that the Rockets were willing to fight for their points and make contact while the Lakers settled for bad shots from the perimeter far too often.

Last year around this time, the Lakers were gathered together in a Los Angeles hotel as Kobe won his first MVP. This year, the honor went to LeBron James, as Bryant finished a distant second in voting. Odom believes Bryant should have won the MVP and the Lakers could have helped his chances if they had the best record in the league, instead of finishing a game behind Cleveland in the standings.

"We let some games slip away, and I think if we would have had the best record I think we would have given Kobe a better opportunity to win it," Odom said. "Every year I've been in the league, he's had an MVP year; but I think everyone just expects that from him."

Odom noted the voting media usually has their favorites and that it's not always the best player who wins the award.

"No offense to you guys, but you might have a different reason for voting for a guy," he said. "One guy might be great in an interview and the other one is not, [so] you're going to vote for the one who's a great interview."

Before the game, Phil Jackson stressed the importance of winning series openers. He should know. When a Jackson-coached teams win Game 1, they are 42-0. When they don't? Well, they are 6-8. The Lakers will try to make that 7-8 now after losing home-court advantage and dropping their first home game of the postseason. Surprisingly, Jackson and some Lakers actually took some solace in the fact that they nearly won a game they had no business being in at times, and promised things would be different in Game 2.

"That wasn't a surprise to us, not to me at least," Jackson said. "The outcome of that game is not as bad as it seems. We're OK. We feel confident we'll come back and give a good effort on Wednesday night."

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