Lakers show full potency at home

Monday May 18th, 2009

When Kobe Bryant was asked what he learned about the Lakers after a grueling seven-game Western Conference semifinal series against the Rockets that culminated with an 89-70 (RECAP | BOX) win Sunday, he didn't hesitate before answering.

"That we're bipolar," Bryant said with a straight face.

Indeed, the same Lakers team that blew out the Rockets the last two games in Los Angeles also was the same group that got run off the floor in Houston and looked as if it didn't even belong in the playoffs. The Rockets, after all, were playing without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo, and the Lakers were 4-0 against them during the season.

"Our effort could be much better," Bryant said. "Houston played extremely well. You can't take anything away from this Houston team, but we definitely could have played a lot harder."

The end of this seven-game series seemed to be predicated more by the zip code of the arena than the adjustments made by both coaches. The last four games were blowouts from the opening quarter by home teams that fed off the energy of the raucous crowd. The home team led by double digits after the first quarter and by 20 in the first half of each of those games.

For as physical, emotional and intriguing as this series was, it failed to provide a single great game. It was more like an amalgam of blowouts and physical games that played out like a series of boxing matches that ended in first-round knockouts rather than 12-round classics.

In Game 7, the Rockets missed their first 12 shots and didn't make their first field goal until 4:44 left in the first quarter, with the Lakers up 13-2. The Lakers extended that lead up to as many as 31 and the Rockets never got it under 19 in the second half.

"They played more aggressive," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman, who is now 0-5 against Phil Jackson in the playoffs. "We didn't respond the way we needed to and we got down. It's hard to come back when you get down on the road, just like they found out."

The game played out beautifully for the Lakers as they built a 25-point lead in the second quarter, despite Bryant's only taking eight shots. The Rockets' game plan was to force Bryant into a situation in which he felt the need to take over the game and not distribute to his teammates, as he did in the opening game of the series, in which he shot 14-of-31. That never happened Sunday as he scored 14 points on 12 shots and focused more of his energy on the defensive end.

"In Game 6 at halftime, we made a decision to get more aggressive -- to get up in passing lanes -- and we just turned it up another notch," Bryant said. "After that game, even though we lost the game, we understood there was another level that we could go to defensively."

For as much grief as this Lakers team has gotten for its lackluster performances on the road, and its lack of a killer instinct, this is still arguably the deepest and most talented team in the league. While that might not have been evident during their last two road games, the Lakers' performance at home the last two games is at least an indication of what that team looks like when it is playing up to its potential.

After the game, as Lamar Odom finished getting dressed at his locker, he was asked why the Lakers don't play the same way they have the last two games at home all the time. "To make it interesting," Odom said with a smile. "It's Hollywood, you know."

Pau Gasol. No one got more heat for being "soft" during the Finals last year than Gasol, and he was anything but Sunday in scoring a game-high 21 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. Gasol is at his best when he is rebounding well; his most productive games coincide with his best rebounding nights. He got into the flow of the game early, grabbing 12 rebounds in the first half, and was the Lakers' go-to guy the whole game.

"Kobe always tells me to leave no bullets in the gun as far as the energy and going after plays," Gasol said. "I made an effort on holding them every single possession, stopping [Aaron] Brooks on all those pick-and-rolls and all that penetration that hurt us in Houston so much."

Ron Artest. As amazing as the Rockets played in taking the Lakers to seven games, what's even more impressive is that they did it with little to no help from Artest. After scoring a combined 31 points in the previous three games, Artest scored only seven points and was 1-of-6 from beyond the arc Sunday. Even though the Rockets seemed to improve with each star player that they lost, they probably weren't expecting to lose another one who was perfectly healthy.

"[The Lakers] wanted to win so bad," Artest said. "I think we just didn't want to mess up."

Andrew Bynum. Arguably the biggest development to come from Sunday for the Lakers is the reemergence of Bynum, who was almost nonexistent for much of the playoffs. Whether he was getting into foul trouble or still tentative because of his knee injury, Bynum wasn't fully himself until Sunday, when he scored a playoff-career-high 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots. Bynum was as active and aggressive as he's been since coming back from his injury and began to play like the player the Lakers wished they had last year during the playoffs.

The 55 to 33 rebounding advantage for the Lakers. The Lakers not only outrebounded Houston by 22 but they also scored 46 points in the paint to the Rockets' 30 and blocked seven more shots. These are the kinds of numbers the Lakers should have against the Rockets, who didn't have a player taller than 6-foot-9 on their active roster. But as the Lakers learned in Houston, doing so is easier said than done.

"We had faith in that," Jackson said. "Pau and Drew both played well in segments of the game offensively, but they did a really good job defensively."

As storied as the Lakers franchise is and as long as Jackson has been coaching, Game 7s are a bit rare for both. Sunday was only the second Game 7 played in Los Angeles since 1988, and it was only the eighth time Jackson has coached in one during his career, despite coaching in nearly 300 playoff games.

"Yes, I get excited, there's no doubt about it," Jackson said. "I wake up an hour earlier than I normally would. It's an interesting phenomenon to go through, these Game 7s."

The Lakers will play the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, with Game 1 set for Tuesday at the Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Nuggets three times in four meetings this year, including a 14-point win last month, but that means little when you consider the Lakers were 4-0 against the Rockets during the season. While the Lakers would have been considered the easy favorites before the playoffs after finishing 11 games ahead of Denver in the standings, the Lakers' and Nuggets' performances during the playoffs have made this more of a toss-up than anyone would have anticipated.

"They're a different team," Jackson said of the Nuggets. "They're playing with much more confidence. They have roles that are much better defined as a basketball team. We know what type of team we're facing. Preparation time is going to be limited so we're going to have to go on emotion and gut level for the first game and hold home court."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.