The Western Conference semifinal that was over when the opening tip went up for Game 1, that was over when Yao Ming hurt his foot and that was over when L.A. won Game 5 with 40-point invincibility is so not over. It is still going stronger than Aaron Brooks' blinding red jacket, still has more possibilities than a barber standing before the canvas of Ron Artest's hair, and now it has a Game 7.
Sunday in downtown Los Angeles will set the field for the West finals, either Nuggets-Lakers starting at Staples Center or Nuggets-Rockets starting in Denver, as work begins on rebuilding Staples. Here's what it won't determine: that the hearty Rockets have accomplished something special just getting this far and that the meandering Lakers aren't close to playing with a champion's focus.
Which leads us to Showdown Point 1: This might be a good time for Phil Jackson to start being Phil Jackson.
He's on the hook for this as much as Derek (29.4-percent shooting) Fisher or Andrew (Maybe I'm not ready) Bynum or others among the blamed. The Lakers have the best talent and the deepest roster in the league, and the Lakers have a shocking lack of consistent effort for a veteran team. The coach, while a much better tactician than a lot of fans believe in the easy reaction of saying Jackson has only won because he has walked into great situations in Chicago and Los Angeles, made his name on managing personalities.
Now, nothing. Big leads against the Jazz in the first round that turned into unnecessarily close games. An embarrassing showing in Game 4 in Houston. A terrible start to Game 6 with the chance to eliminate the shorthanded Rockets. The Lakers are on the brink because they are not playing with urgency.
Which leads us to Showdown Point 2: The Rockets have earned this chance because of their focus.
For all the reasons to go Lakers-bashing, Houston has also pushed them to this ledge. A big trade in the offseason (Artest), a big trade during the season (Rafer Alston-Kyle Lowry in a three-way deal), a big injury during the regular season (Tracy McGrady), a huge injury during the playoffs (Yao), sending the Lilliputians out to face the Lakers. On and on. Yet here the Rockets are, That won't change even if they get tossed out of Staples by their lapels.
Which leads us to Showdown Point 3: Again, I go back to the red jacket.
Trading Alston to the Magic cleared a path for Brooks, the second-year point guard. He started just 35 times in the regular season. But he's been in the opening lineup every game of the playoffs and against the Lakers is at 18.8 points and 48.1 percent from the field. Having a negative assist-to-turnover ratio is the strange part -- 2.5-2.83 -- but L.A. defenders can't stay in front of Brooks. If that there's still no speed bump Sunday to slow him down, the Rockets will have an energy injection and the Lakers will have to handle the frustration.Which leads us to Showdown Point 4: People are drawn to the plot lines. Maybe it's the Lakers, an obvious lightning-rod for fan support or hatred but undeniably watchable. Maybe it's the Rockets and their perseverance. On some level, it's the Rockets just because they're playing the Lakers and people want to push hard for anyone the Lakers are playing. But there is no mistaking the way the series has captured people. The guy at ESPN in charge of peaking into living rooms to count the viewers reported that Houston's home victory Thursday was the most-watched basketball game in network history and the highest-rated program, period, in 2009. It was the late game on a night-time doubleheader, it was the second round and it lacked the guaranteed drama of a Game 7, yet it drew in record numbers. The Rockets are a story because they are overcoming without Yao and harassing the Lakers. The Lakers are a story because they always are. But this is a big deal.
Which leads us to Showdown Point 5: Yao, his emotions and the future.
Houston has won two of three since its star center went out, so the cries about the Rockets being better without him should start anytime and triple if they're jetting to Denver. Funny stuff. A starting lineup no bigger than 6-foot-9 is a gimmick existence and no way to live a long life. They're better with him, no matter what happens.
Which leads us to the Showdown. The Lakers vs. Rockets, Lakers vs. themselves. Because it's not over.