By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted May 5 2009 2:01PM
LOS ANGELES -- It was fitting that tiny Aaron Brooks was the one to lean down and pry the 7-foot-6, 310-pound Yao Ming from the floor late in Houston's 100-92 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, because the Rockets' smallest and tallest players had just spent the last 48 minutes orchestrating perhaps the biggest upset of the Playoffs thus far.
The fifth-seeded Rockets came into Los Angeles and held the first-seeded Lakers to just 44.3 percent shooting overall and 11.1 percent from three to take a game where they led by as many as seven points in the first quarter, eight points in the second, nine in the third and 11 in the fourth. On the other hand, L.A. was only able to hold a measly one-point lead in the second and fourth quarters for a total of 47 seconds.
Ron Artest finished with 21 points, a game-high seven assists and hit the go-ahead and-one jumper with 8:05 left in the fourth quarter to re-establish a lead the Rockets wouldn't again relinquish. Despite his play, even he knew that the game belonged to his little and large teammates.
"[Brooks] controlled the game, I was really proud of him," Artest said of the Houston point guard's performance that included 14 of his 19 points in the second half. "When he's playing bad or he's in a frenzy I get on him, when he's playing well I praise him. He's the reason we won, him and Yao."
Yao went down in a heap after crashing knees with Kobe Bryant with 4:54 remaining and the Rockets leading by six.
For a player who has missed 91 games over the last four seasons because of various knee, ankle and foot injuries, it was a tenuous time. The Rockets called timeout and Yao had to be helped off the floor, all the while wincing in pain. He made his way to the tunnel with Rockets trainer Keith Jones, insisting he return to the bench when Jones was trying to direct him to the locker room.
It turned out to be the second knee-scare psyche out the Lakers endured in the last two postseasons. Monday's letdown at Staples Center followed the same script as Paul Pierce's false alarm in Boston during Game 1 of last season's Finals.
"I felt that I just needed a minute or two to let the soreness go away," Yao said.
He actually only needed 54 seconds of game time to return to the court and an additional 42 seconds on the floor before making a 20-footer to push Houston's lead back to six.
Yao finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
Brooks may have helped Yao get up when he was lying on the court, but he scolded him in the locker room afterwards.
Brooks, still draped in his towel from a postgame shower, approached Yao. The big man was icing his feet at his locker, and Brooks didn't wait to get dressed before relaying his concern.
"Don't play around like that, I was nervous," Brooks said.
"I was trying to say I was fine, it just hurt," Yao explained.
"Next time put your hand up and let us know that ... You took so damn long to get up."
Yao laughed and nodded before becoming serious again as Brooks readied himself to speak to reporters:
"By the way, great hustle when you dove to the floor for that ball."
Brooks looked Yao in the eyes, solemnly accepted the compliment and then answered a reporter's query about whether his team was surprised by Monday's outcome:
"No, not at all."
A lot of words are written about the camaraderie in Cleveland, the brotherhood in Boston and the let's-make-up-for-last-season sentiment in L.A., but what about the fellowship shared by the team in Houston?
"Besides Tracy McGrady on this team, we don't have a guy you can call a 'talent player,' like a Kobe, McGrady, LeBron, that type," Yao explained. "We have to trust everybody, play together, play tough and unite together."
Before the game, Rockets coach Rick Adelman said that his team has been a pleasure to coach ever since McGrady's injury and the February trade of Rafer Alston for Kyle Lowry galvanized them together.
"We found out we had a group that played their tails off every day," Adelman said. "They came together as a group. We had a regular rotation we didn't have before and we had young guys step up."
And it's not just Adelman, a veteran coach of 18 seasons, that sees something special in this team.
"It's weird because every other team I've played for in the Playoffs, players or coaches or whatever change their whole attitude or maybe become even more focused or more edgy. But this team, we played hard during the regular season and we want to play the same during the Playoffs," said Artest, a 10-year veteran.
Bryant said that the Lakers lost because it missed defensive assignments and shot "horrendous" from three (2-for-18) and "horrible" from the charity stripe (12-for-19). He shrugged off his 14-for-31 shooting night as a product of a long layoff affecting his rhythm and not from anything that Houston's two-pronged defensive attack of Artest and Shane Battier did. He seemed almost amused when he said that it would be "interesting" to see how his team responds.
L.A. coach Phil Jackson shared the same coy attitude as Bryant and said the outcome of the game was "not as bad as it seems."
A team that wins 65 games during the season has a right to a certain confidence after a loss, but there could be doubt being hidden beneath the surface.
When Derek Fisher was asked about Game 1 against the pesky Brooks at the Lakers shootaround on Sunday, he answered with a very direct "no comment."
Maybe it was statement by the 13-year veteran and three-time champion that he need not be bothered by a 6-foot, 161-pound guard with only 35 starts in his two seasons.
But maybe Fisher saw Brooks run circles around Portland in the first round to the tune of 15.3 points and 4.3 assists per game and didn't want to admit the kid actually had the upper hand, the same way somebody can plead the fifth rather than incriminate himself.
Fisher shot 3-for-10 on Monday and couldn't have kept Brooks in front of him on defense if he had a Taser.
Now Houston's 0-4 record against L.A. during the season sure seems insignificant next to L.A.'s 0-1 record against Houston in the postseason.
Yao was asked if his team felt like an underdog coming into the series.
"That's a word I just learned a couple days ago," Yao joked. "The NBA says, 'where amazing happens,' right?"
And he wasn't referring to Brooks having the strength to lift him up off the floor.
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