LOS ANGELES | The Western Conference semifinals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets appears to come down to a simple question.
Which Lakers team will show up for the decisive Game 7?
The one that blew out the undermanned Rockets by 40 points in Game 5 to set up what most everyone thought would be the clinching game? Or the one that quickly fell behind by double digits two nights later and lost by 15?
The Lakers, it seems, will be the ones who determine whether Sunday’s matinee at Staples Center is a feel-good story or a horror show.
The winner of this physical, sometimes-testy series will advance to the conference finals to face the Denver Nuggets, who’ve been resting since eliminating Dallas on Wednesday night.
Kobe Bryant admits it’s a mystery why the Lakers have been so wildly inconsistent against a team few expected would reach the second round, let alone push the top seed in the West to a Game 7.
“Yeah, that’s the million-dollar question,” Bryant said Saturday. “There’s a bunch of other teams in the past that went through the same thing for whatever reason. It’s just the emotions of an NBA season, I guess.”
Bryant expects to see “the team that won all those games this year. We’re continuing to evolve, too.
“I think the second half of that game in Houston we picked up our defensive intensity and saw kind of what we’re capable of by playing as hard as we did on the defensive end,” Bryant said. “Hopefully we’ll get off to a hot start.”
After being outmuscled by the now-sidelined Yao Ming in the opener at home, the Lakers dominated Games 2, 3 and 5. Los Angeles was twice embarrassed in Texas by a Rockets team that’s been without Tracy McGrady since February, backup center Dikembe Mutombo since the first round and Yao since he broke a bone in his left foot in Game 3 of this series. Chuck Hayes, a 6-foot-6 forward who’s now the Rockets’ starting center, is a full foot shorter than Yao.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson acknowledged before Game 5 his team has a split personality.
“This team has a Jekyll and Hyde in it a little bit, I’ll admit that,” Jackson said. “They have a tendency to get on their heels at times as a basketball team, but they’ve always responded.”
It’s just that there’s no more room for error for a team that allows itself to be dominated in the paint one game and then does the dominating the next; lets Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks penetrate at will one night and then controls him the next time they meet; or sees the largely ineffective Andrew Bynum score 14 points in Game 5 and then zero in Game 6.
Bryant said there’s “a lot” of pressure on the Lakers. “But this is what we do so, we’re supposed to be here and as players you have to respond. If you’re going to be an NBA champion, you’ve got to be able to respond to situations like this.”
Going against popular opinion, Jackson thinks Game 7 will be about which Rockets team shows up.
“They’ve been the provocateur and they’ve been the one that has been the team that goes out and makes a decided difference in games,” Jackson said. “Their activity level was certainly much greater in games 4 and 6.”
A quick start will be important. The team leading after the first quarter has won all 12 of Houston’s postseason games.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Houston coach Rick Adelman said. “They’re going to come out and try to put a hit on us early. They’re going to try to attack us inside early. I know Kobe will be aggressive. It’s all about seeing how much we’ve grown. I think we’re ready to play.”
That said, “I’m not going to have a lot of patience,” Adelman added. “Guys off the bench, they have to perform. There’s no tomorrow in this situation.”
The Rockets have played loose in this series, and at times with more energy than the Lakers.
“I fully expect us to play a good game tomorrow,” Adelman said.
Luis Scola, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds in Game 6, expects a close game.
“It’s not time for any mistakes. We’ve got to do everything right,” Scola said.
Yes, the Lakers are disappointed they didn’t take care of business earlier.
“Ain’t nothing we can do about it. Nothing. We just got to come out and play,” Bryant said.
Teammate Pau Gasol said the Lakers need to control Brooks, be aggressive and enjoy their home-court advantage.
“Game 7, playing at home, it’s something you deserve and earned in case of getting to this position,” he said. “It will be pressure, but at the same time we’re a good team to respond to that by playing hard, playing well and winning. That’s the bottom line.”