Playoff observations: Yao's balky knee, Farmar's clutch effort, more

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Five thoughts from a night the Lakers made a bigger statement than any Derek Fisher linebacker moment:

1. Yao Ming's injury is the series.It's the issue of the night for the Rockets, the issue heading into practice and the next game Sunday and potentially the tipping point for the entire second round against the Lakers. And if it helps determine who gets to the West final, it helps determine the eventual champion.

With Andrew Bynum struggling just to stay on the court for L.A., Yao at center was an obvious matchup advantage in the Houston column. Bynum is still too undependable, Pau Gasol is still about four inches and 60 pounds smaller, and Yao can power through, around and over either defender. If the sight of Yao badly limping through the final minutes of the Rockets' Game 3 home loss turns out to be an injury that forces him to the sideline, it's a turning-point moment for the entire playoffs.

Based on the comments by coach Rick Adelman at the televised post-game press conference, the Rockets don't have much immediate news. It's an ankle injury. That's it. Yao said only that it's sore and that more will probably be known today, with everyone waiting for word as the series hangs in the balance.

The available centers, just in case: nobody. If Yao is out Sunday, 6-9 Luis Scola might move from power forward to center and Carl Landry would move into the opening lineup. Or stationary Dikembe Mutombo, who went down in the first round, swipes at the ball with his crutches.

2. The return of Jordan Farmar.If those 12 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 33 minutes as the replacement for the suspended Fisher was a big lift for the Lakers, it's nothing compared to what it meant for Farmar himself. The same guy who had gone from backup point guard to third string behind Shannon Brown, who hadn't started all season and who played a combined 21 minutes the first two games of the series became a spark to the victory.

Farmar had four assists in the first quarter alone, helping the Lakers to an early lead. Diving on the floor for a loose ball and passing to Trevor Ariza for a dunk was an important image after being on the verge of falling out of the rotation.

Coach Phil Jackson indicated afterward that Fisher would probably get the starting job back for Game 4, but that Farmar should retain a prominent role.

3. The NBA has done the impossible. Ron Artest has turned into a sympathetic figure.Ejected from Game 2 after being the one hit by Kobe Bryant's elbow -- although Artest should have known better than to jog to Bryant for a confrontation and then argue with referee Joey Crawford -- and ejected from Game 3 on a flagrant foul on Gasol that insightful analyst Jeff Van Gundy rightly noted was nothing more than a hard two-shot foul. League officials may review the Friday ruling and change the call. Or at least they should.

4. Doc Rivers isn't even trying to fake it.He's got 2½ bigs and he's playing 2½ bigs rather than extend the rotation to throw everything at Dwight Howard. So 7-footer Mikki Moore sat... and kept sitting even after Brian Scalabrine got in early foul trouble on a night Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins and Scalabrine all had five personals.

Increasing the degree of difficulty when the Celtics are already down power forwards Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, Rivers is not trusting the moment to anyone other than Perkins as the starting center, Davis as the starting power forward and Scalabrine as the big man off the bench, even though Scalabrine is a perimeter player and not a power player.

Boston has a chance to get away with it because the Orlando power forward, Rashard Lewis, isn't a physical presence. Same thing in the first round against Chicago -- the Bulls interior players won't beat up anyone and couldn't capitalize on the Boston weakness. The Magic have Howard, though, and Rivers and the Celtics escaping this inside mismatch would be a major accomplishment.

5. Home stands.It's the everything moment for the Mavericks: down 0-2 but getting a game in Dallas on Saturday tonight as a final, if distant, chance to climb back into the series against the streaking Nuggets. Oh, and the Cavaliers will run up and down the court a few times in Atlanta to keep in shape for the Finals, perhaps joined by the Hawks.

The Mavericks have a flickering hope because they were in both games in Denver in the fourth quarter, before being left behind, and shot 47.4 and 48.8 percent in defeat. Of course, they also gave up big numbers, but anything against the improved Nuggets defense is a good sign. Rowdy American Airlines Arena will be the toughest atmosphere the Nugs have faced so far in the playoffs and may be a greater challenge than anything they would see in the conference finals as well.

Cleveland-Atlanta has already been settled. Maybe the Hawks, a team that plays much better at home, get one at Philips Arena, Saturday or Monday, but that's about where the realistic goals end.