Racing out to a 17-1 lead in the first quarter, the Houston Rockets played spoilers to the Los Angeles Lakers, forcing a decisive Game 7 with a 95-80 victory at the Toyota Center. Luis Scola, (24 points, 12 rebounds), scored 14 points in the opening period, effectively baffling the flat-footed Pau Gasol, (14 points, 11 rebounds). The Lakers finally got their first basket of the game at the 6:20 mark on a Kobe Bryant layup. Kobe led the team in scoring, (32 points on 11-27, 3 assists, 3 blocked shots, 2 rebounds), but got very little help from any other starter. Jordan Farmar, (13 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal), proved to be the only spark off the bench, connecting on a pair of three pointers to help stop the bleeding. But Houston had gained the clear advantage in the game and ended the quarter with a commanding 27-15 lead.
The Lakers began chipping away at the lead as Houston started to cool off. Turnovers by the Rockets led to numerous opportunities, but the Lakers could not capitalize on them. Missed free throws and errant shots allowed the Rockets to maintain their edge. Andrew Bynum, (0 points on 0-3, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal), could not get any touches and when he did, he was often out of his range. Gasol continued to be slow-of-foot and was forced into awkward shots by the much smaller, Chuck Hayes. Kobe and Ron Artest, (14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals), appeared to bump heads towards the end of the quarter, as Artest went stumbling off the court. The officiating crew, fearing an altercation was about to break out, quickly whistled Kobe for a technical foul and Artest for the personal foul. Replays show that the contact was accidental on both parts and that the technical foul was unwarranted. Aaron Brooks, (26 points, 4 assists, 2 steals), was held in check throughout the 2nd quarter, but his three pointer at the end of the period extended the Rockets lead to 52-36 at halftime.
The Lakers emerged from halftime much more aggressive on defense and quickly sprinted to a 16-2 run to cut the deficit to 54-52. The Lakers trapping defense stymied the Rockets, and Trevor Ariza, (7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals), and Bryant pounced on the opportunity to close the gap. But that was as close as they would get, as Houston regrouped and finished with a 20-13 run to end the period and push the lead back up to 74-65. The 4th quarter belonged to Carl Landry, (15 points on 6-6 from the field, 9 rebounds), and Brooks, who combined for 16 of the Rockets 21 points in the period. The Lakers managed only 16 points as their desperation treys fell well short of the target. Houston finished the game shooting 50.7% compared to the Lakers dismal 35.7%. Despite his efforts, Lamar Odom, (8 points, 14 rebounds), fouled out of the game and was obviously still bothered by his sore back. Game 7 is Sunday afternoon back at Staples Center as the idle Denver Nuggets await the winner of this series.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Tonight’s game had an eerily familiar feeling. A much more talented Lakers squad, coming off their first championship against the Boston Celtics in 1985, decided to change the make-up of their team for the 1986 season. Instead of bringing back Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes, they signed free agent enforcer, Maurice Lucas and back-up center Petur Gudmundsson to shore up their lack of strength in the blocks. But this experiment failed miserably as the Lakers lost in the Conference Finals to the Houston Rockets and their twin towers, Hakeem Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson. The Rockets won that series on sheer determination and grit. The heavily favored Lakers could not force their offensive might upon the Rockets and each game they were outhustled by the likes of Robert Reid, Craig Ehlo, Jim Petersen and a speedy point guard in John Lucas. Houston went on to take the series, 4-1, and eventually lost to Boston in the Finals. But that disappointing loss to the Rockets forced the Lakers to revert back to a running, trapping and athletic team that eventually went on to capture the first back-to-back titles in over twenty seasons.
I’m not saying that a loss to the Rockets is eminent for this 2008-09 edition, but the comparisons between 1986 and now are uncanny. This group of Rockets is grossly over-matched, yet they play every minute of every game with the intensity and determination of a winner. If the Lakers prevail, which I am almost positive that they will, are they capable of moving forward in the playoffs or are they simply running out of answers? I had originally thought that this series would go 5 games at the most. I expected the superior talent of the Lakers to wear down the undermanned Rockets. And when Yao Ming went down, I was already looking ahead to our match-up with the Nuggets. But they too have shown the grit and determination to win and advance, and with Chauncey Billips leading the charge, appear poised and ready to take on all comers. I’ve got the upmost confidence that the Lakers will win Game 7, but what condition will they be in as the games get tougher and the opponents get better?
To end my rant, which by the way is therapeutic, I can only hope that somewhere between now and Sunday, Phil Jackson can light a fire under these guys. Kobe is too great a player to have his talents go wasted on a group of players who can’t bring it every game. I was particularly dismayed by Pau Gasol’s performance. He has said that he wants a NBA title more than anything else in his career, yet his inaction tonight told me otherwise. I saw more fire in his game when he played for Spain in the Olympics. We can’t expect Luke Walton or Shannon Brown or even Lamar Odom to carry us to the championship. But we do expect that Kobe and Pau lead the way with the others filling in the gaps when needed. Kobe had his game face on today. I’m still searching for Pau’s to arrive in this series.