Monday May 18th, 2009

The lingering question, in the wake of a series that shouldn't have lasted seven games but did, is whether Houston exposed flaws in the Lakers that will eventually cost them a championship, or if the Rockets were just a particularly troublesome matchup for the Lakers and presented problems that few other teams can.

In other words, did the Lakers' struggles in the Western Conference semifinals portend anything for the conference finals, or should the series be viewed in a vacuum? The Lakers probably won't know the answer for a couple of weeks, but they must hope that the Rockets were to them what the Hawks were to last year's Celtics, nothing more than a seven-game speed bump en route to the ultimate destination.

All season, the Lakers have been prone to bouts of self-satisfaction. They build a lead and reward themselves with a break. Their lack of consistency and physicality make the Nuggets a popular pick to upset them in the conference finals, starting Tuesday at Staples Center. But as the Lakers showed Sunday at Staples, in winning Game 7 against the Rockets 89-70 (RECAP | BOX), they are still talented enough to flip the switch just before the lights go out.

"We like to make it interesting," forward Lamar Odom said. "Hollywood, you know."

Even Hollywood, with its taste for suspense, has been frustrated by this team recently. Twice in the past week the Lakers were blown out by the Rockets, acted as though it never happened, and then blew them away two days later. In Game 7, finally scared into action, they held the Rockets to 70 points and harassed them into 36.8 percent shooting, prompting the inevitable question: Why can't they play this hard all the time?

"I don't know," forward Trevor Ariza said.

Just because the Lakers like the high wire does not mean they are doomed to fall. Last year, they skated through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but were bullied by the Celtics in the Finals. The Celtics, meanwhile, were pushed to seven games by the Hawks and the Cavaliers but gathered themselves when the stakes were highest. The Celtics' toughness was in small part a result of the challenges they faced early in the postseason. The Lakers are now trying to follow the blueprint created by their rivals.

The Lakers had several reasons to be encouraged after Game 7 and not just because they proved they could play defense when absolutely necessary. They distributed the ball (winning despite only 14 points from Kobe Bryant), were buoyed by their suddenly suffocating home-court advantage (they have won the last two games at Staples by a combined 59 points) and most important rediscovered Andrew Bynum. In arguably his best game since returning from a knee injury, and certainly his most assertive, Bynum made 6-of-7 field-goal attempts and opened up the low post for power forward Pau Gasol, who responded with 21 points and 18 rebounds. The farther the Lakers advance, the more time Bynum has to acclimate, and the more dangerous he and they become.

Bynum credited his breakthrough to a conversation he had Saturday with assistant coach Kurt Rambis, in which Rambis reminded him not to roam on defense, staying between the ball and the basket. It sounded simple, but the Rockets made the Lakers return to the fundamentals. Dating back to last season, the Lakers have been vulnerable to teams with jitterbug point guards and defensive stoppers. Even without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets gave the Lakers fits because they have several stingy defenders and a point guard, Aaron Brooks, who can blow by just about anybody in the league. After finally disposing of Brooks and the Rockets, the Lakers sounded as though they had just ridded themselves of an ant problem. They were eager to see the Nuggets.

"We're going to have better matchups with them as far as size on size, player on player," Bynum said.

The Nuggets are bigger, faster and of course healthier than the Rockets, but they play a completely different style. They have an elite point guard, Chauncey Billups, but he is not a jet like Brooks. Their defense is improved, but they still like scores in triple digits. In some respects, the Nuggets are a more rugged version of the Lakers.

"They are as gifted a team as far as physical athletes and strength," point guard Derek Fisher said.

The Lakers have won themselves a fresh start, a chance to forget all about Houston, but in fact they would be wise to remember the Rockets from now on. The Rockets pushed the Lakers to the brink of their own embarrassment, and for a team that likes to play on the edge, it was a favor. If the Lakers can somehow stay on that edge going forward -- always their biggest obstacle -- they can still be the team to beat.

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