Game 7 looked more like Game 5 as the Los Angeles Lakers dominated at Staples Center from start to finish, eliminating the Houston Rockets from the playoffs, 89-70. The Lakers came out extremely aggressive on defense and broke out to an early 8-0 lead. But it appeared that they were also playing a little tight as their shots clanged off the target. The problem for Houston was that they were tighter still. The Rockets missed their first 12 shots attempts of the game en route to a quick 17-4 deficit. The Lakers swarmed the Rockets and caused numerous turnovers and forced hurried shots. Trevor Ariza, (15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocked shots), connected on a pair of three pointers in the early going to help establish control of the game. Pau Gasol, (21 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocked shots), made up for his soft play in Game 5 and led the team in both scoring and rebounds. Andrew Bynum, (14 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots), played his role as part of the twin towers by powering his way to the basket against the undersized Rockets. And much maligned starter Derek Fisher, (6 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal), did a much better job of staying in front of the speedier Aaron Brooks, (13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 turnovers), and when he did get beat off the dribble, Gasol and Bynum made a concerted effort to pop out higher on the screen-and-roll to force him away and out from the basket.
Houston was uncomfortable in their offensive sets, and without a go-to-guy in either Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady to create scoring opportunities, the Rockets relied on a self propelled offense that only played into the Lakers defensive scheme. Houston was led by no one today. Neither Luis Scola, (11 points on 4-12, 6 rebounds, 3 turnovers), or Ron Artest, (7 points on 3-10, 8 rebounds, 5 assists), could generate enough offense to keep the Rockets afloat. The Lakers led after the first period, 22-12, based on their defense alone. The 10-point cushion could have been much more substantial, but this afternoon, it didn’t matter as the Rockets shot horribly from the floor. The Bench Mob played with the same zeal as the starters and behind the suffocating defensive play of Jordan Farmar, (2 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists), and Lamar Odom, (6 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot), the Lakers extended their lead to 51-31 at halftime. Kobe Bryant, (14 points on 4-12, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks), had a difficult day with his shooting, but he more than made up for that with his defensive execution and all-around game. It seemed like whenever Kobe missed an easy shot, either Bynum or Gasol was there to clean up after him. And with Houston throwing up bricks just to beat the shot clock, the Lakers were off and running, capitalizing on their miscues and in the process, finally ridding themselves of the pesky Rockets.
The 3rd quarter opened with much the same tone as the Lakers defense continued to stymie the Rockets. Neither team looked particularly sharp on offense but the Lakers defense kept the lead hovering around +20 points the entire second half. The 4th was more of the same, with the Rockets realizing that today was just not meant to be. Even Sasha Vujacic, (9 points on 4-7, 3 rebounds, 2 assists), had a defensive moment, stealing the ball at the top of the key for a breakaway slam dunk. He then followed that up with a deep corner three to push the lead to 24 points. The Lakers followed that up with a 11-2 run and the lead ballooned to 89-58 with 2:17 left to play in the game. Houston coach, Rick Adelman, threw in the towel and cleared his bench as the fans started singing their celebratory “na-na-na…” and looking forward to Tuesday’s meeting with the #2 seeded team, Denver Nuggets. Game 7 between the Rockers and Lakers will not be looked upon as the deciding factor in the Los Angeles’ playoff run, but more for the fact that it was even necessary. The scrappy Rockets and their never-die attitude caught the Lakers by surprise. The more experienced and physically dominating Lakers lost their poise and in the process, may have lost some fans while eliminating the undermanned Rockets, 4-3. But they do move on in their quest for the NBA crown, and for at least one day, I’m relieved.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Whew! I’m glad this one’s finally over. Had the Rockets prevailed, this could have been the Lakers apocalypse moment. But no, I get to say, “I told you so.” Phil Jackson was barbecued over hot coals the last few days for his coaching (in)abilities. “Why doesn’t he call a timeout?” “What is he doing sticking with Fisher?” And my favorite, “He’s being out-coached by Rick Adelman.” At last recollection, it’s Jackson-3, Adelman-0. Never has an Adelman-led team advanced past a Jackson-led team. Not in Portland, not in Sacramento, and now, not in Houston. But we do need to tip our hats to the gritty play of the Rockets. They pushed and forced this team to mature and grow before our eyes. And even though this series took longer than expected, it was well worth it for the valuable lessons learned.
1. Never take an opponent lightly. (The entire team, city, state and nation)
2. Never let your opponent out-hustle you. (Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum)
3. Perseverance and hard work will pay off in the end. (Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown)
4. Playoff basketball starts with defense, not offense. (Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom)
Next up for the Lakers are everyone’s team du joir, the Denver Nuggets. But the same things that were said about the Rockets are being said about these Nuggets. The Lakers greater size and superior strengths will over-power the Nuggets. All I know is that they are led by Chauncey Billups, and at last glance, he’s got a championship ring that was supposed to be one of ours. Carmelo Anthony, fresh off his Gold Medal performance with Kobe and LeBron, is a much different player than the one we had grown accustomed. He is no longer the one-dimensional scorer who tended to fade in pressure situations. He is now a defensive presence and coupled with Billips playoff experience, combine to be a formidable tandem. Crazy JR Smith and Birdman, Chris Anderson, have performed markedly well in their first two series match-ups. And although Nene gives up considerable size to both Bynum and Gasol, he is a banger and plays larger than his 6’10” frame.
But I look to our lessons learned and a return to solid play and hustle. When we play with the defensive intensity that we displayed today, there is no team that can weather such a storm and match our firepower on offense. No team. Not Denver, not Orlando, not Cleveland, and sadly not Boston, at least not this year since they’re off on vacation right about… now. But we cannot overlook the Nuggets because if we do, we’ll find ourselves in a similar situation that we just had with the Rockets. So Lakers fans, dust off those flags, stop your complaining about Phil and D-Fish and Sasha, and let’s bring the same energy and passion to the Western Conference Finals.