OVERVIEW: This is when it gets good. The Jazz were too inconsistent to capitalize on L.A.'s inability to go in for the kill, and the Trail Blazers were too inexperienced and too thin to get Houston to clench up as in the first rounds of old, but Lakers-Rockets is a fair fight.
No team has a better chance against Kobe Bryant, and every chance to stop the Lakers begins and ends with slowing Bryant. Ron Artest and Shane Battier will both get time on Kobe and are good defenders, both able to chase on the perimeter or play physically. Houston has team defense. It also has Yao Ming as a shot-blocking backstop for times Bryant gets in the lane.
That's enough to qualify for intriguing possibilities, even if the Lakers did win all four regular-season meetings.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How Andrew Bynum plays. Maybe we should think lower: If Bynum plays. The Lakers went from being very encouraged about his timing and conditioning just before his return from a 32-game injury absence, to watching him play well at the end of the regular season, to pulling him from the starting lineup during the opening round. Bynum averaged just 15.4 minutes -- along with five points and three rebounds while shooting 39.1 percent -- against Utah. Doing better against Houston and Yao is crucial for L.A.'s hopes.
2. The Rockets' offense. Houston finished 22nd in shooting and 17th in scoring in the regular season, and in the last four games against the Trail Blazers managed 92, 77, 89 and 86 points. The Rockets have to generate more heat to make the Lakers, a good defensive team, expend energy at that end.
3. Bryant vs. Artest. And not just because it's the featured matchup of any second-round series. They will lean on each other, jaw with each other, put a shoulder into each other, try to outsprint the other and muscle each other without cloaking emotions. It will be a great time for the cameraman in charge of the isolation shot. But it will not be boiling bad blood -- Artest likes Bryant and Bryant likes Artest.
• Where are the Lakers' heads? They consistently blew leads against the Jazz and didn't play with the focus of a championship team. That can obviously be flipped into laser mode. But L.A. had the chance to snap out of it in the first round and didn't. Now comes another opportunity, but against a tougher opponent.
• The Rockets need to get Yao's offense out of hiding. His 19.7 points a game and 13.4 shots a game in the regular season dropped to a complementary 15.7 points and 10.7 shots against the Trail Blazers. Be that unassertive again, and Houston, it could get ugly.
UNDER THE RADAR: Speaking of "it could get ugly," Phil Jackson and Rick Adelman have a history, and it's not a polite one. The heated Lakers-Kings playoff matchups earlier in the decade, most notably the historic seven-game Western Conference finals of 2002, included Jackson poking at his coaching counterpart. Jackson is never going to be popular at a coaching convention, but he has been particularly below the belt with Adelman.
PREDICTION:Lakers in 6. Houston's biggest hope is that L.A. doesn't find its swagger, a fair possibility. Short of that, though, the Rockets' offense can't keep up with the Lakers' offense and the Rockets' defense can't counter every Lakers weapon.
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