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Lakers have Western Conference closer in sight tonight

ON THE LAKERS

Denver fans might have had it all wrong.

In the final minutes of the Nuggets’ series-clinching victory over Dallas, a “Beat L.A.” chant could be heard as the crowd exuberantly and derisively called out its next opponent.

Perhaps the chant should have been “Beat Houston.”

The undermanned and unbelievably determined Rockets scored another one-sided victory over the Lakers, 95-80, knotting the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal at 3-3 Thursday at the Toyota Center.

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Game 7 will be Sunday at Staples Center, a stunning reality despite the Lakers’ 40-point victory over the Rockets in Game 5.

A Lakers loss Sunday will end their season a month earlier than almost anybody would have predicted when the playoffs began.

After saying all the right things leading up to Game 6, the Lakers reverted back to an uninspired, we-can-beat-anybody attitude that became apparent only a few minutes into the game as the Rockets took a 17-1 lead.

The Lakers had closed out series in all four of their opportunities dating to last season’s playoffs, but they weren’t even close on this one. In fact, the Lakers never led.

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Kobe Bryant was their only player who scored with any consistency, but he certainly wasn’t perfect, scoring 32 points on 11-for-27 shooting.

Andrew Bynum disappeared after a solid Game 5, finishing with no points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes. Derek Fisher continued to struggle, scoring two points on one-for-seven shooting.

Meanwhile, the Rockets improved to 2-1 against the Lakers in this series without Yao Ming. Power forward Luis Scola scored a playoff-career high 24 points and pesky point guard Aaron Brooks ripped through the Lakers yet again, this time for 26 points.

Afterward, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson declined to make an opening statement, as is his custom whenever he seems irritated by a loss. Then he brushed off a reporter’s question about whether the Lakers were “embarrassed” by the Rockets.

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A few minutes later, he appeared unconcerned by what he witnessed.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Jackson said. “It’s just a game and we’re going to go out there and play, and it’s our home court. . . . The last game [at home] we beat them by whatever. We play a different game on our home court. It’s pretty obvious now to see.”

Bryant also seemed undaunted, smiling and laughing numerous times during post-game interviews.

“I said the last game they’re not a chump team,” he said. “They’re not.”

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But the Lakers are one loss away from the end of a season that started with championship expectations.

“Personally, I enjoy Game 7s,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t make me nervous one bit.”

Forget nervous. The Lakers looked lethargic in the first quarter, missing their first eight shots and falling behind by a 21-3 score as a fan held up a sign: “I already booked my flight to L.A. for Game 7.”

Smart move.

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The Lakers’ first basket didn’t come until Bryant’s runner in the lane with 6:21 left in the quarter.

Bryant was not in a chipper mood in the early going, to say the least.

He began to wear a scowl as the Lakers fell behind early, and barked at Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol after going to the bench for a timeout. During another timeout, Bryant zipped a towel over Gasol’s left shoulder, trying to get his attention.

Gasol, who had 14 points on seven-for-15 shooting, was the one wearing the scowl when he appeared with Bryant in the media room.

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“I have faith in our team,” he said. “I think we’re going to respond to this loss. We’re going to be mentally ready.”

It will be the Lakers’ first Game 7 at home since the 2000 West finals against Portland, which ended with an 89-84 Lakers victory after a stirring in-game comeback punctuated by Shaquille O’Neal’s alley-oop dunk off a lob from Bryant.

There were no such theatrics Thursday.

Brooks’ three-pointer with three seconds left in the second quarter gave the Rockets a 52-36 halftime lead.

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The Lakers’ best six-minute stretch of the game came at the start of the third quarter. Bryant’s free throws brought the Lakers to within 54-52 with 5:58 left in the quarter, but the Rockets extended to a 74-65 lead going into the fourth.

The Lakers never came closer than seven after that.

“For the last two days, all I’ve heard was that we weren’t going back to L.A., and guys in our locker room didn’t believe that,” Houston Coach Rick Adelman said.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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