The Los Angeles Lakers, with a chance to render the Rockets listless, squandered their chance to all but put Houston away Sunday afternoon. A series that should have been a foregone conclusion is now interesting again because the Rockets dominated L.A. from wire-to-wire in Game 4.
Now the Rockets return to Los Angeles Tuesday tied 2-2 and with a feeling of validation.
With center Yao Ming out of the playoffs, the series should've been L.A.'s for the taking. Instead of taking a 3-1 lead, the Lakers face the reality that this thing could go seven games.
“This was a good opportunity,” said Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “I’ve been on teams that made this dumb mistake before. It’s important for guys to stay up and be ready to play and come Tuesday we are going to face a really hungry Rockets’ team. We just have to be ready for that.”
The Lakers have no one to blame but themselves, and their inability to pounce on a wounded opponent. Coach Phil Jackson’s pre-game concern that his team might take the Yao-less Rockets too lightly quickly came true. L.A. was down 9-0 before they could look up and it just continued to get worse as the Rockets increased their lead to 19 in the first half and an astounding 29 in the third quarter.
Early it seemed like it would be only a matter of time before Showtime delivered, yet midway through the third quarter it was obvious it wasn’t in the cards. Rockets forward Shane Battier was lighting the Lakers up from the beyond the 3-point arc and lightning quick point guard Aaron Brooks was pick-and-rolling his way to a monster outing.
Brooks scored a career-high 34 points while Battier chipped in a playoff career-high 23 points.
“We’re a little bit of a team that needs to have sometimes a spark put in us to play,” Jackson said. “You guys heard my litany before the game. You know what I was concerned about. There’s absolutely no surprise.”
Without Yao or guard Tracy McGrady, the Rockets are a team without a real scoring threat, yet completely dismantled the Lakers on both ends of the floor. The Rockets played at a faster pace. Defensively, they used smaller inside players like Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola and Carl Landry to frustrate Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Not even Bryant was himself, scoring just 15 points on 7-of-17 shooting while uncharacteristically not attempting a shot in the fourth quarter.
Jackson was asked afterward if he was embarrassed by the way his team played. He wisely dismissed any such admission but did let on that he was frustrated with his team’s performance.
“Houston played a great game, give them some (freaking) credit for real,” Jackson snapped when asked if he was embarrassed by his team’s performance. “Brooks played great tonight, he was terrific off the floor. They played well.”
“Was I angry with the team? Of course I was angry with the team, they weren’t ready right off the back. They didn’t anticipate the energy they were going to come with. You says as much as you can as a coach and then players have to execute.”
That said, the Lakers don’t seem overly concerned. They are clearly the better team and should win the series in six … maybe seven games.
But the Western Conference's top seed has certainly made things difficult. The Denver Nuggets await as the likely Western Conference finals opponent and LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers almost assuredly ahead in the NBA Finals.
“I’m not really concerned about anything,” Jackson said. “We’ve done what we wanted to do in Houston and that is to get home court advantage back. That’s what we came here to do and we did it.
“It’s always disappointed to lose a ball game, but we accomplished what we came here to do and here we are going back home with the advantage.”