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Lakers look for the right rhythm today against the Rockets

It took seven games, 13 days and some awkward, uncomfortable moments, but the Lakers finally rid themselves of the Houston Rockets.

Instead of an agonizing off-season filled with probing questions in several corners of the franchise, the Lakers moved to the next round with a breezy 89-70 victory Sunday over the Rockets in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

The Lakers never trailed, their fans at Staples Center never had to worry, and Pau Gasol had 21 points and 18 rebounds as the Lakers exploited the Rockets’ smaller front line.

If the Lakers were elated, they didn’t show it very much. If they were weary, there wasn’t much time to tend to it.

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The Western finals begin Tuesday at home against the rested and resurgent Denver Nuggets, a rematch of last season’s first-round series won easily by the Lakers in four games by an average of 13.3 points.

Any basketball follower could tell you how much the Nuggets have changed since then. Chauncey Billups was still a member of the Detroit Pistons a year ago and one-name center Nene was a nonfactor in that series because of a strained groin.

In fact, the Nuggets finally ended a string of nine consecutive losses to the Lakers with a 90-79 victory Feb. 27 in Denver, a game in which the Lakers experienced one of the worst shooting games in team history (29.8%).

“They’re playing with much more confidence,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Sunday. “Our preparation time’s going to be limited. We may have to go just on emotion and gut level perhaps for the first game, but we want to hold home court that first night.”

The Lakers were 3-1 against Denver this season, but the Nuggets are on an 8-2 roll in the playoffs, advancing to their first Western finals since 1985.

Their playoff victories over New Orleans and Dallas were by an average of 20.5 points, including a 58-point defeat of the Hornets. They haven’t lost a home game since March 9, winning 16 consecutive at the Pepsi Center.

Still . . .

“I think the Lakers will be favored,” Houston forward Shane Battier said. “I just don’t think Denver’s really been tested at this point. They played a New Orleans team that was sort of coming apart at the seams at the time. The Dallas team without [a full-strength] Josh Howard is a remarkably different team. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Nuggets react when they see adversity for the first time in the playoffs.”

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The Lakers know all about adversity.

They were supposed to receive an intentional walk to the Western finals after Game 3 when Yao Ming went down with a season-ending foot injury, but the Rockets didn’t stall out, not by a longshot, extending the top-seeded team in the West to the max number of games before finally fading in Game 7.

If it wasn’t Gasol scoring and rebounding Sunday afternoon, it was Trevor Ariza (15 points), Andrew Bynum (14 points) or Kobe Bryant (14 points).

Houston missed its first 12 shots, and trailed by 10 at the end of the first quarter and by 20 at halftime. The Lakers’ lead swelled to as many as 31 points in the fourth quarter.

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It was a strange series for the Lakers, who lost Game 1 at home and Games 4 and 6 on the road. In Game 7, though, they outrebounded the Rockets, 55-33, and had 10 blocked shots to only three for Houston.

“It’s a good experience to face an elimination game, to face kind of the seesaw battle of a playoff series, going up, going down,” Bryant said. “I think it helps the team come together.”

What else did the Lakers learn over the last two weeks?

“We’re bipolar,” Bryant said.

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The Lakers will need to be more consistent against Denver, which has been waiting since finishing off Dallas on Wednesday.

Carmelo Anthony is averaging 27 points a game in the playoffs amid reports of his maturation as a player. Nene, Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Kenyon Martin give the Nuggets a physical, if not intimidating, presence down low. Billups has been his usual steady self in the playoffs, averaging 22.1 points and 7.3 assists while shooting 49.2%.

The Lakers were the ones who ruined Denver’s joy 24 years ago in the Western finals, knocking the Nuggets out in five games before beating Boston in the 1985 NBA Finals.

It will be known in two weeks, perhaps sooner, if they can do it again.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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