Rockets Will Face Lakers or Kings

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services 

This is it -- the last time we can speculate about who the Rockets will face in the first round. After tonight, the bracket will be etched in stone, forever available in the History section of the NBA's web site. Will it be Yao vs. Shaq? Or Yao vs. Vlade? Either way, we can rest assured that the starting centers in the Houston playoff series will have unusual first names.

Rockets-Lakers is a better matchup for Houston, and for the fans. If Yao Ming truly will become one of the great centers of all time, this could be the last year he is able to compete in the postseason against one of the undisputed all-time greats in Shaquille O'Neal. Matching up against Vlade Divac and Brad Miller instead would be like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar matching up with Dave Cowens instead of Wilt Chamberlain: yes, Divac will likely go in the Hall of Fame, but to truly measure yourself, you have to go up against the best.

This year, the Lakers are at their best. They have four future Hall of Famers. Shaq is healthy. Kobe is hungry. The two teams split the regular season series. This could be a playoff series for the ages, one that our grandchildren will be watching on the History channel.

Two things have to happen tonight for the Rockets to face the Lakers: the Lakers must beat Portland, and the Kings must lose to Golden State. It doesn't sound likely but it is possible. The last time the Lakers and the Trail Blazers met about a week ago, Portland was still in the hunt for the eighth spot, and they rolled over the Lakers 91-80. Since then, however, they have only had one win in four games, with all of their losses by ten points or more.

While Sacramento should have an easy time of it against the Warriors, these same Warriors did give the Lakers a tough time of it last night, finally falling to them 109-104 after leading much of the way. So don't discount the Warriors, especially against a team like the Kings that have had their difficulties lately.

What are the chances the Lakers beat Portland? Call it 80 percent, optimistically. What are the chances the Warriors beat Sacramento? Call it 60 percent, optimistically.

So the chances of our seeing Yao-vs.-Shaq for a seven game series: a lousy 48 percent. Since we're being optimistic, let's round it up and call it a coin toss.

Feeling lucky, Houston?

The Rockets play their final and essentially meaningless game tonight as they host the Dallas Mavericks. The game starts at 8:30pm tonight and will be broadcast locally on channel 51 and nationally on NBA League Pass.

Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle notes: The Rockets scored 67 of their 111 points in the first and third quarters on Monday, reversing a troubling trend of starting the game and the second half poorly. In the previous six games, the Rockets had been outscored by an average of 24 to 18.8 in first quarters and 28.8 to 21.7 in third quarters. They outscored the SuperSonics 34-25 in the first quarter Monday night and 33-19 in the third

Adrian Griffin(knee) is on the injured list.Steve Francis(elbow) andCuttino Mobley(shoulder) did not play Monday and are questionable for tonight. A determination on whether they will play tonight depends on how this morning's treatment sessions go.


Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle writes: With the Mavericks at Toyota Center tonight to complete the regular season, they bring a reminder of how sensational a difference-maker Yao can be and might have to be in the playoffs where the maddening craftiness of Sacramento's Vlade Divac or brute force of LA's Shaquille O'Neal awaits him.When Dallas last was in town, Yao had 29 points to complete his run to his first Western Conference player of the week award. In three games that week, he averaged 29.5 points on 62.5 percent shooting. "He's very tough," Mavericks center/forward Dirk Nowitzki said that afternoon. "He's 7-5. He's got strong legs. He's going to be a dominant player for years to come. At the beginning, we tried to play him man-to-man and he just ate us alive. "He had his little turnaround working, his little jump hook working. He's tough to guard. He won the game for them. He's going to be a heck of a player." Yao surpassed 25 points in his third consecutive game that day. Since then, he has done it in three of the 19 games, including four overtime games.