In blasting the Houston Rockets out of orbit, the Lakers may have succeeded in securing a Western Conference Finals berth—but they’ve also created more questions than answers in the process.
The fact that every Laker victory was a double-digit rout, while every Laker defeat (outside of Game One) was equally marginal, makes the Lakers even more confusing to analyze.
Here are some of the most significant storylines of the series.
After Los Angeles played the role of bully in Game Two, the referees made it a point to clamp down particularly hard on them—especially in Houston.
The Rockets would build a lead and the Lakers would soon erase most of the deficit, only to be stopped in their tracks by the severely uneven officiating of the (hometown?) refs.
This formula was repeated so often, it looked scripted. Everything from legitimate hand checks to mean looks resulted in a foul call against the Lakers.
This was especially highlighted around the two minute mark of the second quarter in Game Six.
Kobe Bryant made the unforgivable mistake of slightly bumping into Ron Artest while trying to get around him. In an attempt to save himself from the terrible brutality of minimal contact, Artest ran all around Toyota Center selling his cheap theatrics.
This, of course, resulted in a technical foul—but not against Artest. Welcome to Houston, Kobe, where if we do the crime, you do the time.
Fortunately, the NBA realized that upsetting Ron Artest doesn't really constitute as earning a technical foul and Kobe’s T was rescinded soon afterward.
If you’re going to be a referee in this league, or anywhere else, you need to be a man.
Realize that the popular call isn’t always going to be the right one. If you’re going intimidated by the jeers and boos of the home team’s crowd then be a politician; basing your work off of popularity polls has no place anywhere else.
Twelve years pro, 165 playoff games, and three Championship rings—all won as a starter.
When you really look at Derek Fisher’s resume you see that it's not all that bad for a guy many analysts have called “the worst starting point guard remaining in the playoffs” since the second round.
Unfortunately, Fisher didn’t exactly shut the critics up with his latest performance.
Despite the Lakers' overall lack of effort, it was painfully obvious that the only reason the series went nearly as far is it did was Fisher’s lackluster defense against the speed and penetration of Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks.
This was evidenced by the 26 ppg on 57-percent shooting Brooks averaged in the Rockets’ wins, and the meager 11.5 ppg on 34-percent shooting he averaged in their losses.
From Game One, Brooks had proven himself to be much too speedy for Fisher. But instead of sagging off a bit to keep Brooks in front of him, Fisher insisted on his nipple-to-nipple style of defense—and Brooks just breezed past him on nearly every play. (Did Fisher just like the guy’s cologne?)
Even when Brooks’ damage was limited, it was only a result of the safety net-like help defense the Lakers frontcourt was forced to apply. The Rockets' inability to consistently take advantage of the Lakers' over-committing defense saved Fisher from taking on the role of goat.
If Fisher continues to be a liability on the defensive end, will Phil Jackson make the necessary adjustments? He’ll need to do so much earlier than he did in this series. Unlike Houston’s, Denver’s point guard has much more going for him than raw speed.
Every Chauncey Billups-led team has made the Conference Finals the last seven years straight, winning two of them, and once taking the NBA title from the heavily-favored Lakers in ’04. Could that possibly motivate Kobe and Phil for revenge?
What’s scariest is that Billups has never had more to work with talent-wise than he does now. Fisher cannot continue to be the Achilles heel in the Lakers’ defense if the NBA title parade is to be held in Los Angeles for the first time since 2002.
As George Patton one said, “the object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.”
Translating that into the sports world, as tough as a guy looks bleeding on the court, its always better to have the other team’s guy bleed instead.
Although the Lakers and their fans certainly do bleed purple and gold, we didn’t actually get to see it. We did however see plenty of Rocket blood—and guess what? They really do bleed red.
Though the Lakers didn’t look good allowing the Rockets to stretch the series out to seven games, they actually established themselves as the more physical team, as they bullied Houston for the majority of the series.
While the physical play didn’t intimidate the Rockets, it often took their minds off of basketball, forced errors and made it easier for the Lakers to erase their leads (that is, until the uneven officiating started up again).
If the Lakers can actually keep both their physical play and their overall intensity they COULD flirt with winning out. Will they?
Almost certainly not.
Consistency isn’t something that happens overnight. Still, a man can dream.
Phil Jackson, the Zen Master, as many call him, may need to adapt a new persona. When asked if he felt embarrassed over his team’s terrible play in Game Four, Jackson replied “Give them some(bleep)ing credit.”
Jackson felt no embarrassment over the fact that his team, presented with a chance to put a 3-1 stranglehold on a mediocre unit without its best player, fell dreadfully flat in a 99-87 failure that required a drastic Laker fourth quarter just to bring the score that close.
I have always admired Phil’s ability to look down a storm as though he were watching an animated picnic on a Saturday morning cartoon, but not any longer. His fearlessness is bordering on negligence, and the Lakers simply can’t afford it.
In their first two rounds, the Lakers have taken Phil’s laid-back approach and underperformed horribly when they should have swept both series. If they continue this play against the Nuggets, they won't have a chance to do it in June.
In the Lakers latest attempt to win their 15th Championship, we’re starting to see a very familiar storyline.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young fighter from out of nowhere challenges the defending Heavyweight World Champion and actually manages to take him the distance, but still loses.
In the rematch, he succeeds in taking the Championship for himself, but becomes complacent shortly afterward.
He loses his Championship to a meaner, more-focused opponent after failing to prepare for their bout. In order to redeem himself, he must regain the fire he once had during his days as a Champion.
Does that remind you of anything? It should.
The first three installments of the ‘Rocky’ franchise showcase what the Lakers have done, where they are, and how they can redeem themselves if they have the will to do so.
The “out of nowhere” status resembles the Lakers position in the Western Conference standings previous to the 2008 season. Mr. T plays the role of the Boston Celtics, and the three-peat Lakers of the earlier years in this decade provide Rocky’s lost days as a champion.
And in this case, “eye of the tiger” means consistency.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Celtics won’t be around for them to take the title back from, but everything else is still place for a dramatic redemption. All they need now is to add permanency to their recent motivation.
When it comes to winning, impatience is a virtue and if the Lakers don’t win the Championship this year, Charles Barkley was correct in saying they’ll “be in trouble.”
Although the strong likelihood is that Bryant will retire a Laker, the chance that he won’t is still an unpleasantly lingering possibility.
Besides, who could anyone forget the offseason the Lakers suffered only half a decade ago?
Easily the worst in NBA history, L.A.’s 2004 offseason saw the departure of Hall of Fame shoe-ins Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’ Neal, and Phil Jackson.
Although another Championship loss isn’t likely to provide that level of catastrophic damage again, very little is safe on a NBA Finals-losing team in the long run.
Kobe Bryant will need to step up and play with a much greater sense of urgency for the rest of the playoffs if the rest of the Lakers are to follow suit.