Why did the Lakers ultimately lose last season’s NBA title to the Boston Celtics?
Similarly, why did the heavily favored Lakers find themselves in a winner-take-all Game 7 against a gritty Houston Rockets squad?
And why did the Lakers easily and methodically ground those Rockets for good on Sunday at STAPLES Center?
Defense … Swarming defense.
While the Lakers played individually and collectively well at the most important end of the floor, one player can be easily singled out for his impact. It’s a player who also happened to be absent in last season’s playoffs, most notably in the Finals: Andrew Bynum.
Nothing made that more clear than the extended roar Bynum heard from his home crowd when checking out of the game with 1:58 left in the third quarter, the win all but secured with his team up 67-48 thanks in no small part to the young center’s personal clogging of the lane. He finished with six boards, two blocks, and a steal, not to mention 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 22 minutes.
“It’s big,” said Kobe Bryant, who needed to score just 14 points alongside his seven boards, five assists, three steals and two blocks. “From a defensive standpoint, (Bynum’s) extremely critical.”
Deserving just as much credit for putting on his hard hat and going to work is Pau Gasol, who was omnipresent in proving the fact that the Lakers are nearly unbeatable when their two seven footers beat the effort drum. Like Bynum, the Spaniard was privy to a triumphant standing ovation upon checking out of the game with 3:34 to play, his Lakers up 29 thanks in no small part to 21 points and 18 rebounds (six offensive).
“I was just proud of the way (Gasol) played,” said Bryant, seated next to Gasol at the postgame podium. “He played like one of the best players in the world. I was excited for him.”
Gasol and Bynum combined with Lamar Odom off the bench to block six shots, grab 55 boards to Houston’s 33 and limit the Rockets to only 30 points in the paint.
“(We) stopped penetration,” said Odom, who battled a sore back to score six points with seven boards and three assists. “We were able to stop (Aaron) Brooks from getting to the hole and we made them take jump shots, and they never got on track.”
With Sunday’s effort, L.A. had outscored the Rockets by a collective 59 points in its last two home games, with neither game in doubt after respective first quarters. Surely that’s the kind of effort that the Lakers hope to bring in just two days as the Denver Nuggets stroll in for a Western Conference Finals showdown that Houston’s Shane Battier briefly handicapped:
“The Lakers are the favorites,” he offered. “I don’t think the Nuggets have been tested yet.”
They’ll certainly be tested, and then some, if L.A. brings its A game, which Bryant acknowledged simply wasn’t there in every game of the Houston series.
“Our effort could be much better in Game 4 and Game 6, but still, Houston played extremely well,” said Bryant, who could have added “We were weak in Game 1″. “(But) in Game 6 at halftime we made a decision to get more aggressive – to get up in passing lanes – and we just turned it up another notch. After that game … we understood that there was another level still that we could go to defensively.”
Whether or not they can lock that defensive energy up and stick it into a bottle, due to be released on Tuesday, remains to be seen; but the Lakers are confident that they’ll do just that.
“Hopefully we’re going to carry that (defense) into the next round and to a championship,” concluded Gasol. “That’s something we need to do consistently no matter what, no matter where we play.”
With that, some numbers:
Times Houston led in the game, the same number of leads L.A. held in Game 6.
Wins in the playoffs for the Lakers, who have their minds wrapped around getting eight more.
First quarter points from Trevor Ariza, including two 3-pointers, which were key as the Lakers as a team shot just 39 percent in the period. Ariza finished a productive game with 15 points, five boards and two blocks.
Fourth quarter points from Sasha Vujacic on 4-of-6 shooting, encouraging for L.A. as the Slovenian had struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs.
Blocked shots for the Lakers, to just three from Houston.
L.A.’s biggest lead.
Houston’s field goal percentage as the visitors struggled to get good looks at the basket throughout the afternoon. The Rockets made just 5-of-20 threes, two of which came in the final minute (Kyle Lowry) of the game with L.A. playing token defense.
Rebounds for the Lakers, including 13 on the offensive end, to dominate the Rockets’ 33 boards (five offensive). Pau Gasol alone had 18 boards, while Houston’s high-man (Ron Artest) had eight.