Lakers vs. Rockets: Game 5 Preview

Hopefully, they got that out of their system.

What to make of these Lakers? Is it time to panic yet? Maybe, maybe not – I suppose only time will truly tell. But it is clear that at this point, the most significant factor in any Lakers game is heart.

Do they come with passion, intensity, desire, and a willingness to work their asses off to attain their goal? If they do, then I can hardly see another team taking a game, let alone a series.

Or do they come with bored expectation, a sense of entitlement that presumes that lesser teams will simply "roll over" and hand them an easy victory, in submission to their superior talent? In this case, they will lose, and if they cannot rid themselves of this mindset, they will lose for good.

So instead of matchups and breakdowns, our preview for Game 5 focuses on the Lakers' heart, on their mindset entering this game and going forward, and on how we, as fans, should react to this team.

Click on through to read more...

Our own FryingDutchman gave us a sobering look at our team, writing with piercing honesty that one part of him hopes the Lakers get just what they deserve – a lesson, in the form of a season-ending loss.

My heart doesn't work on logic, so I'll be there in front of my TV rooting the team on like I always do for Game 5.  But in the back of my mind, I'll be hoping that one of these teams comes along and finally gives these Lakers the lesson they deserve, that some group of guys dedicated to each other and to playing the game as best they can ALL THE TIME drives the point home to my team and makes them suffer for it.  We all thought it would have happened last year, but it didn't.  Maybe it can't happen, maybe its a lesson the team will never learn.  But my mind will be hoping for a hungrier team to come and ruin the Lakers season again, because my mind does work on logic.  My mind seeks justice.

 Even if it costs my heart the chance to celebrate a championship.

Meanwhile, John Hollinger has pointed out that many eventual champions go through just this sort of thing. Perhaps it is better now, than later? In an odd sort of way, the Lakers struggle to perform at full potential puts them in good company:

Let me remind you of the history of our past six champions:

  • A year ago, Boston reached this point in the playoffs with a sterling 6-5 mark against two teams that had allowed more points than they'd scored in the regular season. Following a second straight double-digit loss to Cleveland, commentators openly questioned the ability of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to deliver in the clutch.
  • A year earlier, the Spurs lost Game 4 at home to Phoenix to even the series 2-2, and didn't have home-court advantage. It took the controversial suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw a day later to propel them toward the title.
  • In 2006, Miami had lost twice to Chicago in the opening round and dropped the opener of Round 2 to New Jersey before rallying toward the title. Like this season's Lakers squad, the Heat were seen as horrific underachievers at the time.
  • The 2005 Spurs reached this point tied 2-2 with the Sonics in a rough, physical series in which the Sonics got under the Spurs' skin. It's easy to forget now, but a sizable contingent of media already had their golf clubs and Coppertone packed for a Phoenix-Miami Finals.
  • In 2004, the Pistons were in even worse shape. Not only were they tied 2-2 with the Nets after a second straight one-sided loss in the Swamp, they went on to lose Game 5 at home because they couldn't contain Brian freaking Scalabrine. Still, they went on to win it.
  • In 2003, San Antonio also found itself knotted at 2-2 against three-time defending champion L.A. – in fact at this point in the postseason the Spurs' record was just 6-4, and lot of critics were pointing to their alleged softness as a reason they wouldn't prevail.

Six straight champions had adversity staring them in the face at this point in the playoffs; not since the Lakers' three-peat have we seen a champion get through a second-round series without having to answer a lot of questions along the way.

Yes, the Lakers looked awful in Game 4. Uninspired, nonchalant, entitled ... you name it and the adjective fits. And yes, obviously, that's a worrying sign.

But no, this doesn't mean we get to write them off as a title contender. Recent NBA history is positively littered with examples like theirs – in fact it seems to be a more common path to glory than the ones Cleveland and Denver have embarked upon thus far.

Via TrueHoop, ESPN's Shelley Smith reported from yesterday's Lakers practice, and the perspective shared by coach Phil Jackson and team leader Kobe Bryant may surprise some frustrated Lakers fans:

The rest of the Lakers went through about three hours of film study and practice.

"It was somber, I would say," Phil Jackson said afterwards. "But they recognize that we went to Houston and did what we had to do, and now it's a three-game series."

Blowing a great opportunity – to win without Yao Ming – is not cause for panic, Kobe Bryant insisted. "Nobody said it was going to be easy," Kobe said. "We surely didn't think it would be easy. We're playing against a tough team."

Bryant added that the Lakers are not the first team to be inconsistent in the playoffs.

"Go back to Chicago when they won championships," he said. "They used to do the same dumb thing, too ... But when you win a championship, nobody remembers you had a 3-1 series lead or you blew a 2-0 series lead. Nobody remembers Boston had two seven-game series in the first round last season."

And as for Cleveland and Denver's roll through the month of May?

"We did it last year, too," Bryant said, chuckling. "Except for one time. Boston came away with the championship.

Either Bryant has been reading Hollinger or, more likely, he's a devoted student of the game. While a loss like Sunday's must be extremely frustrating – sorry Lakers fans, but Bryant just might hate losing as much as all of us combined – it's clear that he also has a certain perspective on what this team needs in order to win a championship.

Last year, the Lakers cruised through the playoffs, dominating every opponent and looking the part of easy champions, while the Celtics struggled with lesser opponents and barely scraped their way to a Finals matchup with their old rivals. You know how that story went – wouldn't you rather the Lakers struggle now, and learn these lessons against teams they can still beat, than in the Finals against a team that will truly punish them for a showing such as Game 4 of this series?

The Lakers, right now, are like a spoiled child, whose intolerable ways will inevitably lead to someone smacking them upside the head. If someone is going to take them down a notch, I'd rather it be at a time when they can get back up, learn their lesson, and be better for it.

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson's response surprises me, and causes me to rethink my position on this team. Jackson is known to be an extremely critical coach. Play well, and he's more likely to tell you how to play even better than he is to give you a compliment. While fans and reporters are praising the Lakers for a good defensive effort, Jackson is much more likely to downplay his team's defense, suggesting instead that their opponents simply missed good shots.

Given all this, I expect Jackson to be critical of the Lakers. If he, of all people, is shrugging off the implications of their Game 4 loss, then perhaps we are making mountains out of molehills.

Meanwhile, one person not surprised by any of this is our own wondahbap, who states that "The weather is awfully fair sometimes." A couple quotes of his, both of which came prior to Game 4:

I'm glad the Cavs are getting all the love right now. It didn't do anything for us last season.

Yao being out takes away the advantage we had at pushing the tempo with him on the floor. Plus, Landry has been giving us problems.

This is secretly what every Rockets wants. Now they don’t have to pass the ball to Yao. They hate to anyway.

In his Monday Credits, wondahbap explained his unusual perspective:

As I expected, the Rockets seem like a better team without Yao Ming.  Yao's presence on the floor was an advantage for us.  Now that advantage is gone.  But none of that mattered.  We didn't show up, and that is the frustrating thing.  It's not the loss.  It's the way they lost.  Without a fight.

Can the Rockets be that good, that consistently, without Yao Ming? In my mind, that much is up to their opponents. L.A., for one, has far too much talent for Houston to keep up with – if the Lakers come to play. But any team that fails to take them seriously will learn that these Rockets still have much fight left in them, and in such a situation, they may indeed be better, at times, without Yao.

Worth noting is that Jackson seems to be seeing some of the same things. Again, Shelley Smith reports:

With Odom's injury, it seems logical that Andrew Bynum will get more playing time. However, Jackson said he hadn't thought about Odom's injury in those terms yet.

"We need speed and mobility more than anything else," he said, intimating that Bynum was not the guy who could provide it. Jackson wouldn't single out Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar or even Shannon Brown when it came to grading how they guarded Aaron Brooks in Game 4. Good thing. Those grades couldn't be good.

Jackson seems to recognize that the Rockets' speed and mobility without Yao Ming can be a problem for the Lakers. For that reason, Bynum may get his shot early, but if he's not able to strongly take advantage of the height mismatch, expect him to continue to ride the pine, while Jackson searches for answers to the Rockets' increased quickness.

For my part, I'm not yet ready to give up on the Lakers. As several people have pointed out, many champions have gone through this type of thing. Folks, the Lakers have been given their wakeup call, and now perhaps the fans need one as well: This wasn't supposed to be easy! If we honestly thought the Lakers would dominate their opponents, but never themselves suffer a heavy loss or two, then perhaps we were just as guilty of a false sense of security and entitlement as the team we root for.

Some have suggested that Cleveland and Denver are better than the Lakers. I find that laughable. They are playing better basketball – but better teams? Motivation and ability are two distinctly different things, and while the Lakers may lack the former at times, their is no team that can match them for the latter. And should the Lakers win the championship in June, it will not only be enjoyable for me, but it will be deserved. That's what is great about the NBA Playoffs: They're built to separate the men from the boys, and the best team almost always wins. If, after two months and four rounds of hard fought, seven-game series, you are the team left standing, then you deserved it.

But first, the Lakers will need to get past the Rockets. That starts with a win tonight. The good news is that Game 5 should be infinitely more predictable than Game 4. On Monday, the Lakers were potentially lacking motivation, having reclaimed home court advantage while the Rockets lost Yao Ming. No one knew what to expect – the team that gave up large leads to the Jazz, or the team that fought hard to win the previous game in Houston.

Tonight, the Lakers' motivation should be clear. They cannot afford to go down 3-2, which would put them in a position that requires them to win both remaining games. They cannot afford to give up home court advantage again. And above all, the "Mother's Day Massacre" will loom fresh in their minds. They will have something to prove, and they will want to avenge the embarrassment that was Sunday night.

Tonight, expect the Lakers team you love.

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