They’re out of breathing room, and hoping this isn’t last gasp
Nobody talked about Saturday’s practice possibly being the last of the Lakers’ season, though it hung in the air, an uncomfortable guest during video sessions, a quick round of shooting and as the players went their separate ways after leaving the team’s training facility.
Few people would have predicted a Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals, particularly after Houston center Yao Ming went down after Game 3, but here the Lakers are, forced to extend themselves to the max a month before many forecast they would be beating Cleveland for their 15th NBA championship.
Players are typically reluctant to admit there’s pressure on their team, but there will be plenty on the Lakers today if they want to get to the next round against Denver, much less the NBA Finals.
“A lot,” Kobe Bryant said. “We’re supposed to be there. As players, you have to respond. If you’re to be the NBA champion, you’ve got to be able to respond to situations like this.”
That the Lakers are in this situation in the first place can be traced to a host of realities.
They haven’t been able to control second-year point guard Aaron Brooks, who has averaged 18.8 points and 2.5 assists this series only three months after being handed the starting job. (How unexpected is his success? He’s not one of the seven players pictured on the cover of the Rockets’ 2008-09 media guide.)
Derek Fisher has averaged only 5.2 points while shooting 29.4% in this series and has had trouble defensively with Brooks. The Lakers’ big men haven’t been as effective as expected down low against the Rockets’ undersized front court.
Steps have been taken to remedy the above. At least, that’s the Lakers’ hope.
After Saturday’s practice, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol put in extra work on pick-and-roll defense with Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis, part of a concentrated attempt to “control Brooks,” Gasol said.
“He has been feeling comfortable, especially at home, finding a lot of good looks and penetrating,” Gasol said. “If we contain, then we have a lot of ground gained.”
Fisher’s minutes have been cut to only 19.7 a game the last three games while Jordan Farmar has averaged 21.3 minutes and Shannon Brown 16.7 minutes over the same span.
“[Fisher] says he’s ready to play and he’s got his shot back,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “We count on him. We believe in him.”
Bynum has been scoreless in three of the games in this series, but there seemed to be some support to get him more touches in the post.
“The guys just have to look for him,” Jackson said. “He’s a great target, he’s got a big body. If he asks for the ball and guys rotate off him, we’ve got to get him the basketball. He’s open in certain situations.”
Said Farmar: “We have to go inside to Pau and Andrew and let them play, no matter if they miss three or four. We have to get [Houston] in foul trouble.”
Meanwhile, the Rockets have persevered without Yao, Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo, most recently answering their 40-point loss in Game 5 with a 95-80 victory Thursday in Game 6.
Spoilers? It’s obviously possible.
The Rockets haven’t been to the West finals since 1997.
“L.A. is the top team in the West and the top team in the East is Cleveland. That would be a great matchup,” Brooks said. “But we’re in a good position to try and spoil that.”
It’s been a busy 20 years for the Lakers, what with seven Finals appearances and three championship parades, but they haven’t done a lot of Game 7s.
Two of them were wildly successful -- Portland in 2000 and Sacramento in 2002 on the way to NBA titles each time -- but their last one didn’t go so well, a 31-point loss to Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs.
Game 7, whether the Lakers expected it or not, is here.
“This is the ultimate challenge,” Bryant said. “It’s single-elimination time. We’re ready to go.”
We get it
Players often claim to never read stories about themselves, but the Lakers’ recent effort has been criticized by just about every media outlet.
In other words, there’s practically no way they haven’t heard about it, if not read about or watched it themselves.
“To me, it’s a little bit of a waste of time, but that’s OK,” Gasol said of the media criticism. “People need to talk about whatever they need to talk about and find explanations and reasons why things happen in life, and in particular in our series. We’ve just got to come out [today], do what we need to do, win the game and move on and then people will be talking about another different thing and hopefully how great things are.”
Said Bryant: “I don’t watch [TV], but I know who’s criticizing.”
This feels familiar
Rick Adelman has lost to the Lakers in the playoffs while coaching Portland and Sacramento, but he now has a chance to pull off an upset while coaching the Rockets.
“This is a totally different team, a totally different situation,” he said. “And I hope, as you say, fate is looking down on us this time.”
Then he paused and smiled.
“They’ve had enough [success],” he added.
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
Houston will play it fast, and loose
Relaxed, confident Rockets say they have nothing to lose and all the pressure will be on the Lakers today.
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Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is 2-1 in Game 7s in his 13-year career.
2000 WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Lakers 89, Portland 84: Bryant had 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots and a hand in one of the most indelible plays in Lakers history, lobbing an alley-oop pass to Shaquille O’Neal for a dunk that punctuated the Lakers’ comeback from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit at Staples Center.
2002 WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Lakers 112, Sacramento 106 (OT): Bryant had 30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers while playing 52 of the game’s 53 minutes at Sacramento as the Lakers completed a comeback from a 3-2 series deficit on the way to a third consecutive championship.
2006 FIRST ROUND
Phoenix 121, Lakers 90: Bryant had 24 points and one assist in Phoenix and was criticized for scoring only one point in the second half of the most one-sided Game 7 loss in Lakers history. The Lakers became only the eighth team in league history to lose a series after holding a 3-1 lead.
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