It took longer than it should have, and included less dominance and more shellshock than it should have, but in the end, the Lakers pulled out the stops and sent Houston packing with an easy 19-point win at Staples Center in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Because of the Lakers' underwhelming play in Games 1, 4, and 6, we have only one day between series — not much time to review before turning our attention on the Western Conference Finals, where the Lakers will play the Nuggets. So as a final recap of the battle between Houston and Los Angeles, our authors weigh in for a Round Table Series Recap.
Either the Rockets proved to be much tougher than previously thought, or the Lakers just proved to be far less motivated than we hoped for. I tend to think it's a mixture of both. Houston was a tough matchup because they had two guys who excel at defending Kobe, as well as some scrappy rebounders around the rim, and an extra-quick guard in Aaron Brooks who was a very poor matchup for Derek Fisher.I think the Lakers' big wins in Games 2 & 3, combined with the news that Yao was done for the season, fueled into the Lakers returning to the nonchalance that cost them Game 1. I think the same thing happened after the huge blowout win in Game 5, leaving a hangover of malaise for Game 6. But ultimately the Lakers showed up when they needed to (as they have all year) and blew Houston out to wrap up the series.
The Rockets brought out both the extremely good and the extremely bad in the Lakers. We saw the bad in games four and six, but also just how good this team can be in games five and seven. The Rockets, even without Yao (in fact, probably more so without him), presented a rough matchup for the Lakers. The Lakers had one clear advantage over the Rockets without Yao in height, but Houston was also perfectly suited to exploit the Lakers' weaknesses in quickness at the point and toughness on the perimeter.
I think game seven showed the most about the Lakers though and what it will take to be successful in the next round(s). The most notable of game seven excellences was the play of Andrew Bynum. Phil often talks about the need for Drew to defend, rebound and control the basket. That's what Drew did in game seven and even his offense, with the exception of a couple nice back to the basket moves, came not from finesse or great footwork, but because of his ability to control the basket on the offensive end. The Houston series provided us a glimpse at the best and worst of the Lakers, but it's probably best we forget about it now because Denver is a far different team and little from the Houston series will apply to the Western Conference Finals.
I have trouble thinking of this series as anything but a disheartening spectacle. I predicted that the Lakers would prevail in five games, and that was before the Yao injury. That he played only three games, and the series went seven, is astonishing. Which isn’t to say that Houston would have won if only Yao had stayed healthy, as I strongly suspect that the Lakers were bringing much more energy and focus – in other words, that they respected the Rockets more – when Yao was in the lineup. Unbreak his foot, and it’s very possible we see the Lakers of Games Two and Three for the remainder of the series.
It’s just hard to find much positive to say about the Lakers’ performance. Clearly, Jordan Farmar’s resurrection was the best development. Pau and Ariza also had pretty strong series, and Bynum finally looked good in Game Seven. But this was the worst coaching job by Phil Jackson since the 2004 Finals, and it’s not even close. He needs to shorten his rotation, make the right allocation of minutes at the PG position, and get Bynum playing consistently well. He’s running out of time to make the necessary fixes.
The Houston series could possibly be the greatest thing to happen to the Lakers this year. That is, provided that they learn from it that they cannot take a team for granted and must come ready to play each and every night. If they don't, they will get run out of the building each and every time no matter how much talent they have. The Lakers were able to beat the Yao-less Rockets by ouscoring them, plain and simple. Don't let the 78 and 70 point defensive performances fool you, becuase all of that hussle on D was really as by-product of our great offense. It's no surprise that if it's a low scoring game, the Lakers will probably lose, and the closer to 100 they get, they better their chances are. The good news of course? The Nuggets like to score a lot too.
A lot of fans are sayng that the Rockets would have won if Yao had not been injured, but I believe that if he stayed healthy, the Lakers would have finished in 5. You could sense the air leave the Toyota Center after Game 3, but Yao's injury re-energized the team and allowed their speedy gurads to drive more. It was like all of the sudden the Lakers were playing a completely different team halfway through, one that they were not prepared for. They were lucky to survive, but they did and now have 2 days to regroup and prepare for the dangerous new-look Denver Nuggets.
A lot of my thoughts on this series, specifically the losses, have already been posted here and here. But there were some positives to take out of it all. Jordan Farmar's sudden re-emergence as a tempo-changing point guard with the confidence to make big plays is a wonderful development that some weren't sure would ever happen, much less this year. Bynum showed some signs, at least at home, of being the player we were hoping he could be. And, for all of their documented struggles in some of these games, the defense was fairly strong over the entire series, as evidenced by a very respectable 1.00 points per posession for the Rockets. Most of the Lakers struggle against Houston (outside of effort, of course) was a stagnant offense which wasn't executed properly, which led to long rebounds and turnovers that turned into easier offense for the Rockets. They say that offense comes and goes, and it really went in this series. The Lakers played 3 terrible offensive games, and game 7 wasn't exactly a strong offensive performance either. Why is this listed as positive? Houston is a very good defensive team, better than almost any in the NBA. Cleveland might be better than Houston – maybe. Second, offense does come and go, which means that the Lakers might be due for a much stronger offensive performance in the next round, as their offense comes back to the mean.
We should all be thankful as NBA fans to watch a team like Houston give everything they've got. The Rockets played as hard as possible and showed great resiliency. But since this is a Lakers blog, I wanted to mention one last thing that hasn't been said a lot. The Lakers are resilient too. Every loss they've had in the playoffs has been followed by their best wins. Sure, the resiliency is due to their own mistakes instead of something forced like an injury to a star player, but that doesn't change the fact that it's there. Even looking at the regular season, Bynum going down brought the best out of the rest of the team. That is the single biggest reason why I think the Lakers championship dreams are still alive and well. It's very difficult for another team to beat you in a playoff series without being able to win two straight games.
Silver Screen and Roll
As Lakers fans, it's easy to point to losses that could easily be labeled unacceptable and view this as a terrible series. In constantly reassessing the Lakers' championship aspirations, it's easy to point to their losses as evidence that this team does not have a championship mindset.
Call me an optimist and a homer, but I prefer to look at the wins – after all, they are what decided who would advance, and as such, they are the most significant outcome of this series. As FryingDutchman has pointed out, there's actually a lot of resiliency to be seen on the Lakers' part. If there is one way in which the Lakers have been incredibly consistent, it is that they have responded to frustrating and disappointing losses with dominant performances, without exception. Consider last year's playoff run, and answer me this: Would you prefer a Lakers team that never seems challenged, or one that responds to adversity?
The primary thing I'd like to draw attention to in recapping this series is something I haven't heard a lot of, but it's really quite simple: The Lakers got better in this round. Remember the first round, against the Jazz? The Jazz were fighters, but the Rockets they were not. Let me assure you that even most of the Lakers' wins against Utah, had they played the same against the Rockets, would have resulted in losses to Houston. The effort, intensity, and overall level of play in this series was several notches higher than what we saw against Utah – even considering the three losses. In particular, the defense was good for most of the series, and downright stifling when the pressure was on.
I'm on record as saying that the Lakers aren't simply going to snap out of such a firmly established pattern of thinking they can win on talent, rather than effort. It's a re-learning process, and they're not going to turn into a consistently dominant team overnight. In that light, I'm very pleased with the steps this team took against Houston, and confident that they will continue to learn and improve in the Western Conference Finals – and should they defeat the Nuggets, I still expect the team that swept the Celtics and Cavaliers in the regular season to show up for a tough Finals matchup.
What about you? Did this series encourage or discourage you? Do you see the Lakers as more likely to win a championship than you did before the series started, or less so? Sound off in the comments below.