Arash Markazi
Wednesday May 13th, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- As the Lakers rolled to a 118-78 victory over the Rockets (RECAP | BOX) on Tuesday to take a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals, they finally felt what it was like to win going away. They finally controlled a game from the opening tip and never allowed their opponent to come up for air.

Far too often in these playoffs, the Lakers have tried to defeat opponents like a James Bond villain, thinking up new, elaborate ways to let the opposition back in the game (and a series) instead of simply finishing the job. Three times at home during the playoffs the Lakers have seen 20-plus point leads turn into one- to two-possession games late, and on the road they lost a game after holding a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. Instead of putting teams away, they almost seemed content playing with them.

That apparently ended with the Rockets' humiliation of the Lakers on Mother's Day, a game in which the Lakers trailed by 29 in the fourth quarter.

"We stayed focused the whole game and that was the key," said forward Trevor Ariza, who had 13 points. "After what happened Sunday, we wanted to do this. And this is what we should do every game."

Instead of playing the game like a kid fiddling with a light switch, turning it on and off, the Lakers left it on from the opening tip and finally shined for the first time in these playoffs. Their 31-6 run from the middle of the first quarter through the beginning of the second proved decisive. For the first time since the end of the regular season, the Lakers grew stronger as the game wore on.

"We were focused after the nice butt-kicking we took down there in Houston," said forward Lamar Odom, who played with a back contusion and scored 10 points off the bench. "We were ready to play throughout the whole game."

It was the kind of performance that reminded many why the Lakers were considered the favorites to win the NBA championship before the playoffs began. It was a reminder that when this team is on and running, it is almost impossible to stop.

While the Lakers finally began to play up to expectations, Houston may have fallen back to earth after overachieving without Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo. It almost seemed as if they improved with each player that went down. Unfortunately for them, they might have lost one too many players for them to match up with a Lakers team that may have finally realized that it's playing in the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant. This is the kind of game the Lakers would love Bryant to have every night. His numbers may not be gaudy (26 points, four rebounds and three assists), but he was efficient (10-of-19 shooting in 30 minutes). This means that Bryant is not only doing his job in facilitating and leading the triangle offense but that his teammates are also doing enough that Kobe trusts them and doesn't feel the need to take over.

"You just got to stay focused and you have to understand that the effort we had tonight is not going to be enough on Thursday [in Game 6], it's just not," Bryant said. "So you got to pick it up and bring more energy and bring more effort because that's what the playoffs are about."

Ron Artest. After scoring seven points in the first quarter, Artest scored only two more the rest of the way and finished with nine points and four turnovers. Artest needs to do more to replace the injured Yao's scoring if the Rockets hope to return to Los Angeles for Game 7.

Lamar Odom. While Odom didn't have a stellar stat line (10 points and six rebounds), his mere presence on the court seemed to energize the Lakers and the capacity crowd at Staples Center, which gave him a standing ovation when he came into the game. Odom was questionable with a back injury he sustained in Game 4, but he sparked the Lakers and finished with an outstanding plus/minus of plus-31.

"We started the game off with a lot of energy," said Odom, who got treatment on his back all day Monday and Tuesday. "You know the strength of our team is our depth. If we can get contributions from everyone, then we're pretty hard to beat."

56 points in the paint for the Lakers. The Lakers finally capitalized on their big frontcourt against an undersized Houston front line, which has no one taller than 6-foot-9. This was in large part due to the reemergence of center Andrew Bynum, who started and scored the Lakers' first six points and finished with 14 points and six rebounds.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson did something on Mother's Day after the Lakers' embarrassing loss in Game 4 that he's never done before during a postgame news conference -- he swore. "It's something I've never done but there was a reporter trying to hammer a point home," said Jackson referring to T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times. "I've never done it before, but it was used in the context of the conversation. With our mics on court all the time and that word flying around the court on almost every possession, it's certainly not something the league is going to censor."

If the Lakers play with the kind of energy they did Tuesday, it's hard to see this series going past Game 6 in Houston on Thursday. "I think we're going to respond. Our team has always responded," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "I'm sure they're feeling pretty good about themselves and we've got to get home and get ourselves ready for the next game."

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