Like most NBA fans (outside the greater Houston area), once the news broke that Yao Ming was going to miss the rest of the playoffs with a foot injury, I wrote off the Rockets. How could they possibly keep pace with one of the top two teams in the league without their best player?
Since the injury, the Rockets have taken two of three from the Lakers, and if Kobe and Co. were truly championship worthy, they would have gone on the road and won Game 4 or Game 6. Laker apologists will probably just say that their team will still win in Game 7 and they’ll go on to win the championship, but really, they shouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Anything can happen in a single game, and sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s just not your night. What if the Rockets collectively catch fire like they did in Game 4? What if Kobe has one of his 5-for-20 days? Or what if Pau Gasol goes down with an injury that knocks him out of the game?
By letting the Rockets get back into the series, the Lakers have no margin for error. That’s the whole point of a seven-game series — it’s designed so that poor luck and bad nights don’t send a true champion home early.
The Lakers are probably going to win Game 7 and advance to play Denver. But the damage may already be done. Doubt has crept into the minds of the Laker rotation players. Andrew Bynum is averaging less than five points in just 15 minutes of playing time. Sasha “The (Self-Proclaimed) Machine” Vujacic is averaging 3.5 points per game on 29% shooting. Derek Fisher isn’t doing any better — 5.2 ppg, 29% FG%. Luke Walton is shooting just 30% in the series. Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar are playing decent, and Lamar Odom is doing okay in limited minutes, but it hasn’t been enough to help Kobe and Pau put a beat up Rockets team away. Phil Jackson is scrambling to find a five-man unit that works, and he’s having a hell of a time.
But these Lakers lack what every Laker team has lacked for the last several years…chemistry. Think about it — to varying degrees, the Cavs, Nuggets, Celtics, Rockets and Magic all seem to actually enjoy playing with each other. The congratulations seem enthusiastic, and the comfort seems genuine. But these Lakers look like nine or 10 different individuals playing a team game. Kobe is only happy with his teammates when they succeed. If they don’t, he treats them like a passive-aggressive (or just aggressive) stepfather who never wanted to be a parent in the first place. And there is so much pressure on Kobe’s “kids.” If they fail and the Lakers don’t win a championship, they’ll be responsible for daddy being denied the one thing in this world that he really wants — another championship.
If they do manage to win Game 7 on Sunday and advance, how do these Lakers go on to beat the Nuggets or (likely) the Cavs, two teams that are playing their best basketball of the season? Will they be able to put this series behind them and suddenly everything will start clicking again? It’s possible, because we don’t know for sure what kind of toll the Rockets’ defense is having on these Lakers — maybe seeing a new team will give everyone the fresh start that they need.
Then again, maybe the damage is already done.