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Rockets come out flying in L.A.

The Rockets’ Game 1 upset of the Lakers snuck up on Bill Simmons, who revisits the fourth quarter in a retro-diary.

Yao Ming

My plan going into Monday night was solid on paper: A six-hour TV binge that started with a marathon toggle between Magic-Celtics and Red Sox-Yanks, followed by the first half of Rockets-Lakers, then all of “24,” culminating with the second half (via TiVo) of Rockets-Lakers. Here’s how it fell apart. …

1. The Celtics put me in a sour mood by becoming the first team to trail a playoff game by 28 and subsequently blowing that same game in the fourth quarter. Also, Brian Scalabrine played so much that he turned medium-rare. And Ray Allen missed a game-changing 3-pointer that hit every part of the rim twice with less than a minute left. All in all, a surprisingly unhappy Game 1 loss that led to a 25-minute Rufus walk and my missing the first quarter of Rockets-Lakers.

2. Sox-Yanks started with a two-hour rain delay and was marred by the realization that every Sox-Yanks game for the rest of eternity at New Yankee Stadium is going to suck. Seriously, nothing spells non-drama quite like a replay of Jason Bay cracking a game-clinching homer with a collage of empty lower-box seats behind him. Even if you filled the inside of the Grand Canyon with a gigantic 20-story shopping mall and a 50-story luxury hotel, it wouldn’t be a worse idea than New Yankee Stadium. I guess I should be happy the Yankees murdered a significant home-field advantage for the rest of my life and yours … but I’m not. Old Yankee Stadium was a worthy adversary. New Yankee Stadium is like one of those terrible ideas for an overpriced Vegas casino that looks doomed even as they’re still building it, and you walk inside the first time and think, “Wow, they’ll be knocking this thing down in two years; let’s get the hell out of here.” Except that in this case, the overpriced casino is going to be around for another 50 years at least. But congratulations and best of luck with it.

3. Continuing the Jack Bauer and Dwyane Wade parallels, “24” is falling apart as fast as Wade’s MVP campaign and postseason did. I actually fell asleep during Monday night’s episode. I do not normally fall asleep during TV shows that I enjoy. This season’s writing staff threw a phenomenal 6 2/3 innings and completely ran out of gas. To paraphrase Jack, “Tell me what happened to the good ideas!!! TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GOOD IDEAS!!!!”

4. I woke up six minutes into “The Hills” and the Sports Gal refused to change the channel because Audrina slept in Brody Jenner’s bed in Hawaii and Brody’s Playmate girlfriend was furious about it. These are the moments when Bruce Jenner feels proud for all the sacrifices he made trying to win that Olympic gold medal in 1976. But this led to an awesome moment in Twisted Female Logic when Audrina’s friend LC then blamed Brody for not sticking up for Audrina and siding with his girlfriend because it was Brody’s fault that he didn’t kick Audrina out of his bed because he was in a relationship and Audrina was single, so, really, it was up to HIM to do the right thing. No blame for Audrina for going after someone else’s dude? Really, LC? I sided with Brody, the Sports Gal sided with LC, and I’m ashamed to admit we actually argued about this for 20 minutes.

My argument in three parts: (A) Audrina is a tramp, (B) all women are natural enemies even if they pretend this isn’t the case, and (C) a single woman will always do whatever it takes to land someone as appealing as Bruce Jenner’s untalented but handsome son, even if it means seducing him on a reality-TV show and promising secrecy with him even though that show will be airing two months later.

The Sports Gal refused to admit I was right and claims she knows plenty of women who wouldn’t do this. When I asked her to name these women, she named a bunch of her married friends, which indirectly proved my point: nearly all SINGLE woman between the ages of 25-40 will do whatever it takes to land an appealing male, even if that means trashing whatever female code of ethics that allegedly exists. This is why women don’t trust other women. This is why Hollywood makes movies in which Ali Larter tries to steal Stringer Bell from Beyonce. You never see a movie in which Stringer Bell tries to steal Beyonce from Omar Epps. Why? Because no guy would like that movie. It would just make us angry. We would sit there thinking, “That’s not cool; this would never happen.” But if I took the Sports Gal to see “Obsessed,” she would say, “I can’t believe Beyonce is letting this happen,” or “I would have sniffed this girl out 20 minutes ago.” In other words, SHE WOULD IDENTIFY WITH BEYONCE’S CHARACTER just because they’re both women and they know how other women operate!!!!! You’re damned right I had to use CAPS and three exclamation points. Sorry, I win this argument. I just do.

What does this have to with anything? Well, by the time we were done arguing the case of “Audrina versus Brody’s girlfriend,” I just wanted to go to sleep. I had no idea Houston beat the Lakers until this morning. Hmmmmmm. Was it legitimate? A fluke? Could the Rockets actually win this series? Sounded like the perfect time for a retro-diary of the fourth quarter. Let’s join TNT’s broadcast with Houston leading 70-67.

12:00 remaining: During the mandatory in-game coach interview, Phil Jackson attacks Craig Sager’s mustard-colored sportscoat and compares him to Bozo the Clown. Has anyone gotten more mileage out of bad clothes than Craig Sager? With the possible exception of Ralph Furley?

2009 NBA Playoffs

Want an in-depth look at the Rockets-Lakers series? Check out all the stats, analysis and opinion here:

• Rockets-Lakers page

11:39: Shannon Brown ruins an easy fast break by bowling over Kyle Lowry for a charge. This seems like a good time to mention that L.A.’s backup point guard is Shannon Brown. Of all the hidden chinks in the Lakers’ armor — tons of mileage on Kobe these past 20 months (191 straight games plus the Olympics), Andrew Bynum’s rustiness, shaky 3-point shooting from their swing spots, a tendency to fall asleep with big leads, Derek Fisher getting old — Shannon Brown getting meaningful minutes has to rank right up there. This never would have happened if Jordan Farmar was still alive.

11:31: Sasha Vujacic flops for a pushoff call on Von Wafer. Let’s continue to reward foreign players who leap backward every time someone bumps them. No, really. This is what the fans want.

11:00: Lowry sinks a jumper after Brown trips and falls. Rockets by five. That trade continues to amaze me: Memphis GM Chris Wallace deciding, “We can either keep Lowry, pick up his option and pay him $5 million combined in 2010 and 2011 when he’s worth twice as much, or, we can flip him for a late first-round pick that has a 12 percent chance of being as good of an NBA player as Kyle Lowry already is. Screw it, let’s roll the dice!”

10:28: Yao pulls a Parish-like drop step on Gasol, then gets fouled on the attempted dunk and hits both freebies. Meanwhile, Doug Collins reports that the constant chatter between Wafer and Vujacic is escalating. Don’t get my hopes up that someone might punch Sasha in the face, Doug. That’s just not fair.

9:37: Kobe tries to go baseline on Shane Battier, who forces him under the hoop and strips the ball from him as he heads out of bounds. Lakers ball. Is there a better one-on-one matchup in basketball right now than Kobe versus Battier? It was already good, then the great Michael Lewis blessed it, and now it’s like watching a basketball chess match every game. I love this series just for Kobe-Battier. Kobe might get his points, but he’s gonna have to work his butt off for them. This much we know.

9:14: Odom to Gasol for an alley-oop. Beautiful. Rockets by one. I will always hate the Lakers because of my Boston DNA, but, man, if you love basketball, it’s impossible not to enjoy Odom and Gasol playing together at the 4 and 5 spots. It’s European basketball done as well as it can possibly be done. I continue to think that the 2008-09 Lakers do their best work when they go smallball with Odom-Gasol-Kobe-Vujacic-Fisher. But what do I know? Timeout, Rockets.

9:14: Stay thirsty, my friends.

9:14: OK, so Pizza Hut is now offering a “Tuscana Pasta Pair” of lasagna, creamy chicken alfredo and breadsticks as a package deal for just $13.99. That’s right, we’re continuing to find ways to make America fatter! Guys, can you throw in some fried mozzarella sticks? What about churros?

8:57: Vujacic clobbers Luis Scola on an upfake; Scola makes both FTs. Thank God Scola’s hair didn’t touch Vujacic’s hair. I think the Staples Center would have blown up.

8:57: Kevin Harlan just claimed Sager was “The award-winning Craig Sager.” What???? I’m Googling this.

8:57: Sager apparently won some Georgia-area Emmys in the early ’90s … and … well, that’s all I can find. My old Web site won a couple of “Best of Boston” awards in the late ’90s. Does that make me the award-winning Bill Simmons? I think it does!

8:38: Kobe lofts a floater in traffic over Artest for two. What’s interesting about Artest at this point of his career: He’s much better at guarding spot-up shooters (such as Rashard Lewis) and smaller post-up players (such as Paul Pierce or even David West) than he is at staying in front of someone like Kobe. In the old days, he could lock anyone down. Not anymore. On the bright side, he’s single-handedly keeping alive Anthony Mason’s “drawing logos and letters into my hair” gimmick from 16 years ago. So there’s that.

8:19: Brown sinks two freebies for L.A.’s first lead in eons. More importantly, do you realize that Jack Sikma is a Houston assistant? How much would you pay for Sikma to bring back his blonde permafro from the early ’80s? Would you rather see this or Battier grow his hair out, Jonah Hill style? I can’t decide.

8:05: Three-point play for Ron Artest. Rockets by two. This Lakers crowd is deader than dead. It’s not even “Weekend at Bernie’s” dead — it’s “Weekend at Bernie’s 2” dead.

7:39: A dreadful Lakers possession ends with a 22-foot Kobe brick over Artest, followed by a 20-footer from Yao, Yao stuffing Gasol on a drive, Odom getting fouled on the putback and Odom missing both FTs (he’s 1-for-6 so far). No energy from the Lakers down the stretch. None. It continues to feel like something is slightly off with them: Either they don’t totally love playing with one another, they’re a little bored, they feel a little too entitled or it’s some combo of all three (and that goes for the fans as well). Throughout the season and especially in the playoffs, the Cavs looked hungry as hell. The Lakers look more like they’re searching for little challenges to stay focused. Which is fine if you’re a 70-win team or defending champs, but in this case, neither applies. I don’t know what to make of them right now. I really don’t.

6:14: Lowry snares a defensive rebound from Brown, followed by Brooks stutter-stepping Vujacic for an easy jumper. Houston by six, timeout L.A. Smart (and unconventional) lineup there with two waterbugs (Lowry and Aaron Brooks) playing with Artest, Scola and Yao, putting the Lakers in that dreaded “Do we try to match up with inferior guards, or do we ignore what they’re doing and go bigger?” conundrum. You always want to be the other team in a conundrum, especially if the other team has more talent. Again, smart coaching.

Quick tangent: It’s amazing how many coaches miss chances to make superior teams bend to them. Like Nate McMillan ignoring his biggest advantage in Round 1 (going small against Houston and forcing Yao to come out to guard LaMarcus Aldridge) and stupidly playing right into Houston’s hands. Like Vinny Del Negro not going small until the halfway point of the third quarter in Game 7 when he should have been going small every time Scalabrine played (and attacking him with John Salmons). Like Erik Spoelstra not playing a super-smallball lineup (Udonis Haslem, Michael Beasley, James Jones, Daequan Cook and Wade) against a better Atlanta team and trying to beat the Hawks with speed and 3s. Someone needs to explain how it’s 2009 and yet coaching and officiating are getting worse. I can’t figure it out.

6:14: Sound bite from Rick Adelman inside Houston’s huddle: “It’s all about us winning! Not them losing, it’s us winning!” And it’s about the six inches right in front of your face! Because that’s what living is!

6:00: Bad 20-footer by Kobe over Artest. That’s followed by Brooks torching Fisher and slicing through the middle undeterred for a pretty layup. I love that Brooks went so late in the 2007 draft. So wait, when you score a ton of points in college, shoot a high percentage and get your shot any time you want, that might translate to success in the NBA? Are we sure? Rockets by eight.

4:59: Kobe smacks knees with Yao on a drive. Yao goes down in a heap. Gasol gets a dunk. Yao stays down in a heap, wincing and holding his knee. Crap. Crap. Crap.

4:59: Coming back from commercial, we see Yao limping off in the tunnel surrounded by trainers and concerned Houston GM Daryl “Stop Calling Me Dork Elvis” Morey. Lots of face time for Daryl. He’s wearing a snazzy brown sportscoat, a blue sweater and looks like he just paid between $100 and $150 for his haircut. Maybe even $175. And they definitely shampooed him before and after the cut. This is exciting. Now Yao is limping back to the floor! How do you say “Time for a Willis Reed comeback!” in Chinese? How many Chinese characters would that take?

4:33: Turnover by Houston. Ugh. Bad possession. Meanwhile, Sager is reporting that a previously “tearful” Yao has now demanded back into the game. Cut to Yao standing at the scorer’s table with an “I’m gonna kick everyone’s butt” face. Yao Ming! Who knew? I think I’m officially a fan. Make room for me on the 2 billion-plus Yao Ming bandwagon please. Just give me a spot near the way way way way way way way way back.

4:20: Yet another flat 20-footer by Kobe with a hand in his face: Front of the rim, rebound Houston. Because his knees are deteriorating after 1,100-plus NBA games, Kobe shoots more jumpers and turnarounds, and it’s absolutely the right move at this point in his career. At the same time, a smart defensive team like Houston (and Boston last season) plays up on him and dares him to drive for his points. When he doesn’t, he has to make 20-footers with a hand in his face. You can’t win a title that way.

Postgame note after the fact: Kobe has attempted a total of 44 FTs in six playoff games (7.2 per game). Last spring, he attempted 194 FTs in 22 playoff games (8.8 per game). For the regular season, his FT attempts dropped from 10.2 (2005-06) to 10.0 (’06-07) to 9.0 (’07-08) to 6.9 (’08-09). So, no, Kobe doesn’t go to the hole as much. Let the record show MJ averaged 10.6 FTA in the ’98 playoffs and Wade averaged 10.9 FTA in the ’06 playoffs. I’m just sayin’.

(Cue up the Laker fans shrieking, “Yeah, the difference is that Kobe never gets a call!” They’re the best.)

4:00: Come on, Kevin Harlan, you couldn’t have dusted off a breathless “And here comes Yao!!!!” call in Marv Albert’s honor? I feel cheated. In other news, shot-clock violation, Houston. Normally, this is Kobe time. Let’s see.

3:45: Trevor Ariza misses a 3; Odom hauls in the ballboard and flips it back in. Houston by four. Interesting sequence there because Houston put Artest on Odom and Scola on Ariza, then planted Scola in the paint as an added line of Kobe defense. When Kobe drove to the foul line and tossed it to Ariza, Scola conceded the 3 and didn’t even really jump out on it. Translation? “Yes, please, put the game in Trevor Ariza’s hands!” That’s the single biggest weakness on this L.A. team in crunch time: Ariza’s inability to nail that open 3. He made 32 percent of them in the regular season; in the Utah series, he inexpicably caught fire and nailed 11 of 18; tonight, he’s 0-for-3.

Which brings me to another way that stats need to get better: I guarantee that 99 percent of Ariza’s 3s in 2008-09 were taken when he was wide open. Same for Jason Kidd’s, Daniel Gibson’s and others’. But guys such as Wade, Pierce and Kobe routinely jack up 3s at the end of the shot clock, at the end of games with two guys on them, at the end of the quarter, in “last shot of a tie game” situations and so on. If someone such as Pierce shoots 35 percent on 3-pointers, actually, that’s infinitely more impressive than Ariza’s 32 percent. So why not make “wide-open 3-point percentage” a statistic? If you have time to set your feet, lock and load to get off a good shot, that’s a wide-open 3. The point is this: For all the wide-open shots Ariza takes, he should be at 40 percent minimum. He’s just not that good.

Now, if you’re a Lakers fan, and your team is battling Cleveland in a do-or-die Game 6, and the Cavs fans are going crazy with three minutes left, and you’re trailing by four, and the ball swings to Ariza in the corner because the Cavs tripled Kobe on a drive … do you feel confident that Ariza will make that shot?

(I bet you don’t feel confident. At all. Don’t lie.)

3:16: Yao from 20 … yes!!!!!! Rockets by six. Great stuff. I haven’t been this excited by a Chinese person since General Tso.

2:53: Houston leaves Ariza AND Fisher open to defend a two-man game with Odom and Kobe. Kobe throws it out to Fisher in the corner — brick. Houston gets the rebound. Dating back to Game 74 of the regular season, Fisher has missed 33 of his past 40 3-pointers. For the Lakers to win this series, Houston has made it clear that either Ariza, Fisher, Walton or Vujacic must nail 3s or Kobe is going to have to go old-school Kobe and beat everyone one-on-three. Smart. I like it.

2:35: Yao misses a fallaway, Kobe tips the rebound out of bounds, then Artest takes advantage by nailing a leaner over Ariza. Rockets by eight. That’s followed by another 3-point brick from Ariza (wide open) and Yao grabbing the rebound. It looks like the Rockets will improve to 1-0 in playoff games played at a neutral site.

(Wait, this game is being played in front of Lakers fans who are supposed to be cheering their team and affecting the game? Are we sure?)

1:40: Yao follows a Lakers hoop with a pretty spin move and gets fouled. He’s 8-for-8 for the night, 87 percent for the regular season, 94 percent in the playoffs and 84 percent for his career. Shaq, Russell, Wilt, Ewing, Robinson, Hakeem, Mourning, Walton, Moses … all of those guys shot in the 60s and 70s for their careers with Moses leading the way at 76 percent. It’s the most interesting thing about Yao other than his obscenely gigantic height: He’s the only elite center in NBA history who couldn’t be fouled in crunch time.

In fact, if you look at the top 90 career free-throw shooters, only four centers make the cut: Jack Sikma (42nd), Mike Gminski (58th), Bill Laimbeer (73rd) and Yao (86th). Of course, that would be the funniest genetically blended center of all-time: Imagine a 7-foot-6 Chinese guy with Sikma’s blonde permafro, G-Mo’s beard and lack of a neck, and Laimbeer’s doughy body. At the very least, it would have led to the greatest basketball cards ever captured. And yet I digress.

1:33: Kobe makes one of two free throws. He has taken 29 shots to get 26 points so far. In his defense, the jump from scoring on Utah’s D to Houston’s D is like going from “Pro” to “All-Madden.” Still, not a great sign for the Lakers.

1:26: With Houston dribbling out the clock and drawing fouls, Doug Collins gives us his “This game is not over by any stretch of the imagination” line, as contractually obligated by the NBA and TNT.

Screw it, let’s skip to the end. Final score: Houston 100, L.A. 92. Could we have a series on our hands? Could Yao Ming (28 points, 10 rebounds, one dramatic comeback) be making a belated leap to superstardom? Could the Lakers be more beatable than we thought? And is there anything more fun than hearing a happy Yao interviewed after a hard-fought victory, when he has that giddy Chinese accent crossed with a twinge of hip-hop, only if it was happening with Andre the Giant’s voice?

You could say I enjoyed everything about Game 1, even if it took me an extra day to watch it. I just hope Yao’s wife is smart enough to keep him away from Audrina before Game 2.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.