Lakers 89, Rockets 70: Well, that wasn't such a chore, now was it?
That breeze you feel isn't the wind or an overzealous air conditioning unit, but the collective sigh of the Laker Nation. Those hooves? Not from a TV replay of yesterday's Preakness, but from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping back to the heavens. All because the Lakers came out Sunday afternoon at Staples in Game 7 of their Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, took care of business, and avoided a monumental upset. Final score: 89-70, in a game the Lakers dominated from start to finish. Today's game was all about defense (see below). LA held the Rockets scoreless until the 6:53 mark of the first quarter and allowed only 31 points at halftime. Overall, it was the sort of focused, concentrated effort that would have ended this series a couple games earlier had the Lakers delivered.
While I do feel there's some value for the Lakers in having been tested by a must-win Game 7, experience that could come in handy down the road, I won't say they benefit from putting themselves in this spot. No question it would have been better to finish Houston on Thursday in Texas. The Lakers are through to the Western Conference Finals. It's a blank slate, a fresh start. Spotty play against the Rockets doesn't make them less likely to beat Denver, nor does "being tested" make them better prepared. I'm not much for carry over.
Bottom line, the Lakers still have the potential to advance to the Finals. They should, and I think they will. But they'll have to play better against the Nuggets to make it happen. One thing we have seen, though, is that as challenges become larger (be they big regular season games against Boston and Cleveland, or today's do-or-die), the Lakers tend to get better. That's a pattern Lakers fans will hang on heading forward. Great win today.
- Defense: A complete defensive showing on boatload of fronts. The Rockets managed just 37% shooting, that dry outing's tone set during the first quarter, when a mere quintet of the enemy's twenty shots connected. The Lakers kicked off that frame on an 8-0 and more than half of the quarter elapsed before Chuck Hayes notched the first Rocket field goal. The Lakers forged a relentless, successful effort to maintain distance between Houston and their interior (only thirty points in the paint, a third during fourth quarter garbage time).
And during those occasions a Rocket did work his way into the paint, he rarely encountered sledding easy or uncontested. After a Game 6 left to run unfettered, Luis Scola enjoyed just 11 points on 4-12 shooting. Thursday's partner-in-crime, Aaron Brooks, also found life less than pleasant, canning just as few shots while taking one additional attempt. A 3-10 stinker from Ron Artest (whose lust for dribbling brought many a Rockets possession to a standstill) completed the ring when it came corralling to Houston's Big Three.
But as mentioned, the defensive success wasn't limited simply to the lockdown. Houston missing that many shots means the opportunity for rebounds and second chance points. Well, it theoretically means such chances, just not this afternoon. The Lakers absolutely dominated the glass, pulling down 55 boards to Houston's 33. In particular, Pau Gasol channeled his "inner- Rodman." Not just in the way he snared eighteen boards by his damn self (although that certainly wasn't anything to sneeze at), but with an aggressive nose for putbacks. His six offensive boards bested Houston's entire tally by one and accounted for nine of his 21 points. On both sides of the ball, quite the redemptive effort for El Spaniard, reversing his fortunes after a lethargic Game 6 thoroughly outplayed by Scola.
If that weren't enough, fifteen turnovers were forced, five from Brooks alone. The Lakers swatted ten shots, and save lil' 6'1" Derek Fisher, every starter not only hosted the block party, they all had at least two apiece.
Despite executing a much better offensive brand of basketball- rim attacked, size mismatches abused, ball moved- the Lakers didn't meet with the same prolific results as typically encountered after that approach. But when they play such "hair on fire" D, they can get by when their own bucket proves stubborn.
- Andrew Bynum: No Laker has taken more postseason heat than Andrew Bynum, touted by many as the team's missing piece after 2008's stalled Finals run. Instead, we've seen Bynum's production, alertness and energy ebb and flow to wildly inconsistent (and mostly ineffective) degrees. This was perfectly exemplified by Game 5's move to the starting lineup (5-6 FG, 14 points, 6 rebounds) and the Game 6 encore, his third goose egg effort of the series. I don't disagree with some fans that Phil Jackson has occasionally put Bynum on a leash too short (in particular, I thought he should have played more during Game 6), but that criticism comes while acknowledging an undeniable truth: Bynum's court time has often resembled a lost puppy that wandered into freeway traffic. More often than not, such scenarios result in road kill.
As a result, nobody had a clue what to expect from Drew this afternoon, but as far as surprises go, this one fell under the category of "more than pleasant." Bynum set this tone from the jump, anchoring the Lakers' paint and acting as the postseason force envisioned. Blocking a layup from Hayes. Literally vacuuming a layup from Brooks, creating a new Laker possession concluded by a Trevor Ariza three-ball. Standing his ground during a Scola drive to force a bad shot, effort rewarded with a trip to the line after Luke Walton played Peyton Manning and caught AB17 on the run in transition.
Drew was good on both charity stripe tries, and as a 6-7 shooting performance reflects, good from just about everywhere he hoisted. Bynum accumulated fourteen points through composed, overpowering putbacks (as opposed to Thursday's rush jobs), going glass after spins around defenders, and doing most anything but dunking. (Editor's note: There actually was one dunk off a small lob from Ariza.). Success (largely) flush-free only further demonstrates how much comfortably Drew operated this afternoon, a hopeful sign of good things to come against the Nuggets. Between Nene, Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin, Denver's inside presence isn't lacking. Big contributions from Drew may not make or break hopes for advancement. But the goal does become considerably more difficult.
- Kobe Bryant: Another contest against Houston where Kobe's shots and the net weren't simpatico , and during this 4-12/14 point effort, I read some live blog comments along the lines of "Kobe having a terrible game." I couldn't disagree more, and think that's a very narrow way of judging his production. For starters, you'd be overlooking the complete nature of his stat line, which includes seven boards, five assists (against just one turnover), three steals and a pair of blocks, one absolutely spectacular coming from the weak side to compliment Gasol sticking Scola during a drive.
But beyond that, I really enjoyed the way Kobe didn't allow whatever frustration felt over it not being his afternoon (shot-wise) to result in a series of forced, bad shots. There was no effort to "put his stamp" on the game (a cliche some writers use to express "scored a bazillion points"), and such discipline was plenty instrumental in the Lakers sticking to a game plan, abusing Houston with their strengths and not walking away from possessions unnecessarily empty-handed.
As the anti-drunk driving campaigns remind us, sometimes you gotta know when to say when. Kobe used similar good judgment, a call that played a sizable role in controlling the Lakers' action.
- If you wanna pick apart a win by nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nineteen... nineteen, you and Paul Hardcastle have at it. Personally, I don't roll like that.
FYI: Youtube issues are preventing a video post, but we'll have those up ASAP.