Who's up for a repeat of Game 5?
A dominating performance it truly was, with much good and very little bad, and virtually every statistic that mattered favoring the Lakers. So what will it take to see a similar effort in Houston tonight, ending in a similar result? Our three keys to a Lakers win, after the jump.
Just about everything went right for the Lakers on Tuesday, on both ends of the court. Thus, the 40-point win. While it would be nice to get continued positive results all across the board, on offense and on defense, resulting in another super-blowout, a 40-point win is not necessary – a win of any kind will suffice.
Here are the three factors that will be most important to a Lakers win in Houston.
Effort & Intensity
To the best of my recollection, the Lakers haven't played as hard as they did on Tuesday, for as much of the game, since they beat the Cavs in Cleveland, with a very sick and very ineffectual Kobe Bryant. That was in February. Tuesday's Game 5 was exactly the kind of game that Lakers fans have been clamoring for from our team. They played well coming out of the gates, quickly ratcheted up the intensity on the defensive end, and built a halftime lead of blowout proportions – and then, instead of letting the Rockets back into the game in the second half, they continued to play hard and extended that lead from 25 to 40 in the third quarter. In the fourth, the bench came in and performed like they used to when they were known as the best bench in the league, and prevented any slippage, finishing with the same 40-point lead.
The effort, intensity, and desire were polar opposites of Game 4, where the Lakers came out flat, underestimated their opponent from the start, and never made the adjustment, trailing the entire game.
To say that Lakers fans feel confident when the Lakers play as they did in Game 5 is a huge understatement. I think it's safe to say that when they play up to their potential – which they almost did in Game 5 – Lakers fans feel they can't be beaten. By anyone. So it almost goes without saying that the primary factor in determining the result of this game will be the mindset of the Lakers coming in.
I'd like to say that the Lakers have "turned a corner," that they've "learned their lesson" and will now play up to their potential. But you and I both know that's not true. Predicting "which Lakers team will show up" is like predicting the weather: You can try, but we all know you're just guessing blindly. The fact remains that we won't be able to confidently expect a solid effort from these Lakers until they actually feel that they could lose – only then are we likely to see them playing hard on a regular basis. The bad news: They'll say the right things, but after Tuesday's blowout of massive proportions, the Lakers can't possibly believe that the Rockets could beat them.
The good news (in a sense) is that the Nuggets ended their second round series against the Mavericks last night, 4-1. That means that if the Lakers win tonight, the Western Conference Finals will begin on Sunday – with only two days off in between. If they fail to close out the series tonight, they will get only one day off between a Game 7 and the start of the WCF. If anything is going to motivate them at this point, that and another Cleveland sweep should help.
I wrote about this yesterday: Derek Fisher, as much as I love the guy, has been a liability in this series. I expect him to be a valuable asset in the next couple rounds, but at least while the Rockets' lightning-footed Aaron Brooks is on the court, Fish needs to spend most of his time on the bench.
Jordan Farmar has been superb in this series, when given the chance. Why he played only 21 minutes in Game 4 and 22 in Game 5 is beyond me. I understand that the Lakers have three quality point guards, each deserving of minutes, but frankly, Derek Fisher is too mature a person, and too much the team player, to make a fuss about limited minutes when Farmar and Brown are playing so well. All that matters (and I'm sure D-Fish would agree with me here) is putting the lineup on the floor that gives L.A. the best chance of winning the game. And in Game 6 against Houston, that means heavy minutes for Farmar, with UPS Air getting most of the minutes off the bench.
If Derek does get any time on the court against Brooks, I want to see Jackson post him up. It won't solve his defensive deficiencies, but it'll create great opportunities for Lakers baskets on offense, theoretically meaning that at worst, they trade baskets. As long as the Lakers aren't fighting from behind, there are worse things than that.
While I'm certain that Phil Jackson will again start Fisher, I hope to see Farmar as soon as Brooks starts skipping to his lou past Fish. Farmar's quickness will bolster the defense, make it hard for the Rockets to create shots, force more turnovers, push the pace, and generate easier offense for the Lakers.
As important to the outcome of this game as the play at the point position is the play of the Lakers bigs. In Game 4, the Rockets' undersized reserve bigs out-muscled and out-hustled the Laker bigs, embarrasing them in the paint on both ends of the court. In Game 5, the opposite was true: Gasol and Bynum played as though they finally understood that they're bigger than anyone the Rockets can throw at them. They shot over them, ran around them, played well off each other, and got them in foul trouble. They dominated the glass, and generally played the game on their terms.
For Bynum, Game 5 was encouraging, and may prove to be just the kind of confidence boost he needs. Not only did he produce well on offense, but he also played excellent defense, and he committed only two fouls in 20 minutes. 14 points on only six shots doesn't hurt, either (2.33 points per shot – take that, Doug Collins!). If he can put together a second straight solid game, it may really help to break him out of his mental funk and give him the confidence he needs to become a force for the Lakers in the paint, on both ends of the floor. Look for the Lakers to try and get him involved early; if they can, Bynum should be energized on defense as well, and another good game for him will be underway.
For Gasol, it's important to note that he did this on his terms. The questions about his toughness are valid, though I think they're often overstated. But Gasol needs to understand that for him, "toughness" does not mean going blow for blow with the NBA's biggest and strongest. For Gasol, "toughness" is more about resiliency, determination, and strength of will. It's about how he responds to adversity, what he does when met with a physical challenge, and whether he can play the game on his terms. If that means playing to his shooting ability, soft touch, speed and quickness, superior footwork, and "finesse" plays that are more about skill than power – so be it. That is Gasol's game; banging with the bigs on the block is not.
On Tuesday, Gasol did just that. He beat his defender with free throw line jumpshots, running hook shots, and inside passes to open teammates. He used his footwork to get past his defenders, his quickness to get around them. He played to his game, and didn't worry so much about posting up and backing his defender down, like a traditional NBA big man. He was pushed around and taken advantage of in Game 4, and he responded in Game 5 by playing his own game and dictating the terms. For Gasol, that is toughness. That is what he must do again tonight.
If the Lakers can get their bigs going, the offense will be in high gear, and there will be no need for Kobe Bryant to take over. The attention the Laker big men will demand will make it easy for Kobe to get to the hoop, and the Lakers' shooters will be open on the perimeter. Meanwhile, early success for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol will build their energy on defense, which will only lead to easier shots and better offense for L.A.
There are plenty of other things the Lakers can do to ensure a win tonight. Baiting Ron Artest into a host of tough outside jumpshots and closing out on three-point shooters are a couple things that come to mind. Playing defense is another. But if they come to play with energy, intensity, focus, and effort; if they contain Aaron Brooks on defense and push the pace on offense; and if they get their bigs going early and play the game from the inside out, a Lakers win is almost sure to follow.
Will it happen? Don't ask me, I'm no weather man. That's why they play the games!