- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the Los Angeles Lakers emphatically silenced the doubters and the Houston Rockets, winning Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals 89-70 on Sunday.

With Gasol scoring 21 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, the Lakers looked like the conference’s top-seeded team, not the maddeningly inconsistent one that was pushed to the decisive final game by the undermanned Rockets.

The Lakers dominated the paint on both ends, forcing the Rockets into turnovers and bad shots and owning the boards. They had an 8-0 lead a few minutes in and widened it to 25 points on Gasol’s jump hook shortly before halftime.

The Lakers, trying to reach the NBA Finals for the second straight year, host the opener of the conference finals against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Gasol left to a nice ovation with 3:34 remaining in the game.

Trevor Ariza scored 15 points, and Bryant and Andrew Bynum had 14 apiece. Bryant added five assists and seven rebounds.

Aaron Brooks scored 13 and Luis Scola had 11 for Houston. Ron Artest (seven points) and Shane Battier (three) were nonfactors.

The Lakers have been so up and down in this series that coach Phil Jackson said before Game 5 that they had a little bit of Jekyll and Hyde in them. That was the night the Lakers raced to a 40-point win at home, only to follow it by getting blindsided a second straight game in Houston, losing two nights later by 15.

Using homecourt advantage to the fullest, the Lakers made sure they weren’t going to choke this one away against the No. 5 seed.

Asked what the Lakers learned from this series, Bryant cracked: “That we’re bipolar.”

“Our effort could be much better, you know, in Game 4 and Game 6,” Bryant said. “But still, Houston played extremely well. In a series, it’s about making adjustments. That’s what we were able to. We made our adjustments. We came out and were ready to go. You can’t take anything away from this Houston team. But we definitely could have played a lot harder.”

This one was practically over before the fans settled into their seats.

With Houston missing its first 12 shots, Los Angeles used two Houston turnovers and a blocked shot in racing out to an 8-0 lead. Gasol blocked a shot by Scola and fed Bryant for a layup. Scola’s turnover led to Ariza’s tip-in of Gasol’s miss. A turnover by Brooks set up Ariza’s 3-pointer, forcing Houston to call a timeout with 9:32 to go in the quarter.

Houston missed seven shots during the next 2 1/2 minutes and didn’t get on the scoreboard until Brooks made two free throws just more than five minutes in.

“Coming in here for Game 7, we knew they were going to give us their best shot, especially in the first quarter,” Battier said. “To be honest with you, we just didn’t have energy to match it. Unfortunately, after we got past the first quarter we played them pretty straight up, but the damage had been done at that point.”

During one sequence, Odom blocked a shot by Brooks, and Bryant ended up with the ball and whipped a crosscourt pass to Ariza for a 3-pointer and a 13-2 lead.

It wasn’t until then that the Rockets made their first basket, a layup by Chuck Hayes.

Houston made only five of 20 shots in the first quarter, while the Lakers had 17 rebounds, including 12 on defense.

The Lakers were up 22-12 at the end of the first quarter and steadily pulled away.

Leading by 19, the Lakers scored six straight late in the quarter. Bryant stole a pass and fed Ariza for a slam dunk, bringing Jack Nicholson out of his courtside seat. Bryant made two free throws, and Odom fed Gasol for a jump hook that gave Los Angeles a 51-26 lead.

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