Lakers/Rox Game 7 Recap
Hyde a no-show as Jekyll returns to Lakers.
All week long, the media types have been probing the Lakers’ collective psyche like Grissom examining a body on CSI. (OK, so Grissom’s off the show, but you get the idea). After two unconscionably bad games in Houston, the Lakers’ maturity, their heart, and their desire (but never their talent) was under more scrutiny than A-Rod’s Dominican cousin.
No one could fathom how an undermanned Rockets team could push the Lakers to an elimination game, but it’s not like the Lakers haven’t done this sort of thing already. The 2000 team blew a 3-1 series lead to Portland and had to rally from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to make it to the Finals. In the 2001 Finals, they lost to the Pacers by 33 in a close-out game. In 2002, it took a lucky bounce and Robert Horry’s buzzer-beater to keep from going down 3-1 to Sacramento. All those Lakers teams won championships.
The difference with this team is that something still seems to be lacking at a fundamental level. Call it leadership, call it maturity. The three-peat Lakers of ‘00-02 had the kind of veteran leadership, with Horry, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, and Ron Harper – that this team simply doesn’t. As brilliant as Kobe Bryant is as a player, his leadership has always been suspect. He’s as apt to whine at the refs, scowl at his teammates, and force up shots as he is to take over games and facilitate.
In the ugly Game 4 and Game 6 losses, Kobe did nothing to stem the tide. Not that it was all on him – his younger teammates, like they did in Boston last year, struggled to keep their poise and find their shots. Phil Jackson’s laid-back style of coaching, encouraging players to work through bad patches on their own, doesn’t necessarily work with this group.
Some comforting thoughts for Lakers fans looking for historical precedents before the game:
Rick Adelman had never beaten the Lakers in a playoff series.
The Lakers were 12 for 13 of their last Game 7s.
In Lakers-Rockets playoff history, the winner of the series had gone to the NBA Finals a total of four times.
The four teams that went to the Finals—the Rockets in ’81 and ’86; the Lakers in ’84 and ’91 – all lost.
Arriving at Staples, I check the press seating list, and am grateful for the cachet that SLAM carries at Staples. Sixty-two reporters are slotted in the upper press boxes, the ones closest to God. I am one of the fortunate ones slotted downstairs, closest to the Laker Girls and Jack. SLAM, praise be thy name.
If there’s any palpable tension in the locker room, it’s from the two dozen or so reporters milling about. The Lakers are masters of evasion on this day. At a certain point, there’s nothing more left to be said. Either you win or you don’t. Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, and Jordan Farmer pop their heads in, but don’t stick around to answer questions. They look loose.
On the Rockets side, I catch a quick comment from Ron Artest – “We have enough confidence that we don’t need to worry about luck” – before he, too, runs out.
Phil Jackson’s press conference begins with a reporter asking him if he’s nervous. “Sure I am,” he says. “Should be nervous on a day like this.”
Did he sleep well last night? “Yes.” Asked if he felt like he’s been on top of his game lately, he shrugs amicably and deadpans, “”I don’t know what else I could do. My shot is not falling. My three-point shot is limited. I’m worried.”
Clearly, he wasn’t. It’s what makes him so irritating at times. Nothing seems to faze Jackson or the Lakers. This time, they had the last laugh. Next time, maybe not so lucky.
I find one player in the Lakers locker room hanging at his locker, willing to talk. It’s Sasha Vujacic. Sasha, too, doesn’t seem worried. He claims that Phil has given the team inspirational words, but won’t divulge them. “We have to take care of the present and continue our journey.”
“We are mature enough as a team- if we play up to our level, we have nothing to worry about.”
Back on the Rockets side, it’s pin-drop quiet. Too quiet. Shane Battier is stretching, a couple of other guys sit at their lockers. For a team thriving on its underdog role and claiming to feel no pressure, they sure do seem quiet.
I find Luis Scola. I want to know how the Rockets can avoid a repeat of their Game 5 debacle.
“We just have to play hard, stick to the game plan, stay focused, and make it to the last quarter still in the game. If we can do that, the pressure will be on them. If we let them get 10, 15 points ahead, it’s going to be very difficult to come back.”
Truer words, as it turns out, were never spoken.
The fans are amped. During the singing of the National Anthem, they boo the verse “rockets red glare.” There’s something the Nuggets don’t have to be concerned with.
The last thing Vujacic had said was, “There’s no need to talk. We know what we have to do.”
And then they go out and do it.
First Rockets possession, Aaron Brooks penetrates, dishes to Artest in the corner – and he airmails a three. Then Pau Gasol blocks Scola’s first shot, leading to a Kobe layup. Then another Rockets turnover. Ariza tips in a Gasol miss. Another Rockets turnover. Ariza nails a three.
It’s 8-0, and 2:28 into the game, a note scrawled in my pad says, “it’s over.”
When the Lakers decide to play defense – really play it, fighting through screen-and-rolls, funneling speedy guards into their big men, closing off passing lanes – they are an awesome team that few can beat.
Already, the Rockets have a look of doom. The pattern of this series- much like the Atlanta-Miami series – is that the team that wins the first quarter wins the game.
The Lakers don’t score on their next six possessions – and all the Rockets can manage are a couple of free throws.
The Rockets don’t make a field goal till 4:43 left in the first quarter, missing on their first 12 shots.
The Rockets are out of sorts and out of options. Everything that worked in Game 6 is shut down today. If Brooks drives by Fisher, he’s met by two collapsing Lakers. When Scola tries to spin past Gasol, Gasol is there waiting, for Scola into hook shots and one-handers outside his comfort zone. Artest already has more airballs than points. The Rockets miss on 20 of their first 25.
Not that the Lakers are lighting it up. If someone were to tell you before the game that the Lakers would shoot 9-23 in the first quarter, you’d think they’d be in a world of hurt.
Instead, they end the quarter with a 10-point lead
Two minutes into the second, a Chuck Hayes layup brings the Rockets within 9, 24-15.
That’s the closest they will get the rest of the game.
News Flash: Kobe Bryant is not coming up big in Game 7.
News Flash II: It doesn’t even matter. That’s how scary-good the Lakers are playing. And to be fair, Kobe’s rebounding and assisting, anchoring the defense, and shrugging off his misses. Except when he’s complaining to the refs.
News Flash III: The Lakers just remembered the height advantage they hold with Yao out. Gasol and Andrew Bynum are punishing the Rockets on the offensive end. At one point, Gasol has as many rebounds (11) as the Rockets front five.
Kobe checks back into the game at the 8:20 mark of the second. His first shot is an airball with Battier in his face. Kobe runs downcourt, jawing at the refs, yelling for a foul. Maybe Battier hit him, maybe he didn’t, but it’s the least appealing part of Kobe’s game.
On one textbook sequence, Brooks is funneled into the middle by Fisher. Bottled up, he tries a cross-court pass, which Jordan Farmar picks off, leading to a Kobe jumper, and a 33-17 lead.
Five minutes later, Kobe picks off another errant Brooks pass and feeds Ariza for an athletic drive, and a 47-26 lead.
The Rockets have yet to make a run and don’t seem capable. They seemed to have left everything on the floor in Houston—just like they did after Game 4.
By halftime, the Lakers have 11 second-chance points to the Rockets’ none, and lead in points-in-the-paint, 26-14. The offensive sparkplug is Ariza, but the Lakers are winning this in the trenches – with defense and rebounding.
The second half is more of the same. The loudest roar comes on an Ariza-to-Bynum oop that raises the lead to 63-39. The crowd chants “Houston Sucks!”, but that seems besides the point. It’s the Lakers who should be wondering how they let this gritty but clearly inferior, undersized team push them to the brink.
In the fourth quarter, with the celebration on, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang A Drum All Day” blares through Staples. The lyrics seem to be an apt metaphor for the Lakers:
“I don’t want to work.
I want to bang on a drum all day,
I don’t want to play
I just want to bang on the drum all day.”
Sometimes they want to work, other times, they just want to bang the drum. Fortunately for Phil Jackson, ABC, the NBA, and several thousand disgruntled Lakers fans and bloggers, the team that showed up today was the team that wanted to work.
The question of the day is posed to Odom: Why can’t you guys do this every night? “We like to keep things interesting,” Odom says, and it’s hard to tell if he’s kidding. “This is Hollywood.”