Lakers face situation similar to last season's playoff matchup with Houston Rockets
The Lakers' performances against the Oklahoma City Thunder creates a level of thinking in two camps, one that believes the Lakers' armor continues to crack and it's only a matter of time before things go really sour and the other believes this is all just a overreaction and everything will work out just fine.
Nonetheless, the Lakers have been down this path before, as recently as last season when Houston challenged them to a seven-game Western Conference series before the Lakers advanced. I cringe when people bring up this series as evidence that current concerns about the Lakers are overblown, because I think it only raises an even more indicting question. Does the fact that the Lakers played with fire against Houston yet didn't get burned really deserve such praise? I don't think it does, but for better or worse, the Lakers managed to advance.
Last season's series against the Rockets never lacked for storylines.
Houston's Game 1 victory in Los Angeles raised questions about the Lakers' commitment to playing hard every game and the team's toughness, also an issue in the 2008 NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics. In Game 2, things got physical. Lakers guard Derek Fisher was ejected for throwing an elbow as Houston forward Luis Scola tried to set a screen on him near the top of the key. Ron Artest, then with the Rockets, fumed about an over-the-back foul when he thought Kobe Bryant should have been called for throwing an elbow. Artest ran across the court to voice his displeasure and was ejected. The Lakers then took Game 3 and regained home-court advantage and apparently the upper hand. They held Houston to 41.7% shooting and made 11 steals and nine blocks. Meanwhile, Rockets center Yao Ming suffered a season-ending hairline fracture in his left foot.
The rest of the series, though, captured the Lakers in a nutshell. They displayed a laissez-faire attitude in 12-point and 15-point losses in Games 4 and 6. They showcased their superior talent against an undermanned Houston team in 40-point and 19-point blowouts in Games 5 and 7. Houston was scrappy despite losing Yao, and made more of a series out of it than the Lakers' 4-0 regular-season record against the Rockets would have indicated. And battling these obstacles had been a season-long story for Houston. It advanced past the opening round for the first time in 12 years, despite Tracy McGrady's season-ending knee injury in February and Dikembe Mutombo's knee injury during the Rockets' first-round series against Portland. The fact Houston hung with the Lakers through seven games when some thought they wouldn't last more than four spoke to Houston's resiliency and the Lakers' complacency.
Yet, after testing their fans' sanity level for 13 days, the Lakers survived and avoided a long off-season filled with probing questions about the current season's roster. I wouldn't call the finish a test of the Lakers' character and resolve. I would argue it's that the Lakers finally managed to get their act together. But regardless of where you stand, the Lakers still have the ability to correct their problems. But if they don't, I wouldn't say I'd be entirely shocked.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to drive around Rockets forward Shane Battier in last season's Western Conference semifinals. Credit: Dave Einsel / EPA.