By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 15 2009 10:13AM
HOUSTON -- Kobe Bryant sat at the scorer's table watching it unfold before his eyes. When the Lakers' leading man finally arrived five minutes into the fourth quarter, Houston's little-big man Carl Landry stood at the line after a vicious one-handed tomahawk.
The Little Engine That Could was up 10 and had no intention of letting the West's big, bad wolf blow its house down. Mixed fairytale metaphors aside, the Rockets added to their enchanted postseason fable with Thursday night's 95-80 stunner that forced a deciding seventh game Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.
One unwritten verse remains in a Western Conference semifinals that keeps coming up with more twists and turns and cliffhangers. Who could have predicted this after the Rockets lost Yao Ming before Game 4?
Houston's owns two double-digits triumphs at home since then, with the latest sending the series back to the scene of the Lakers' 40-point massacre. That 118-78 laugher in Game 5 was supposed to be the knockout blow for the Rockets, who had gone further than most thought they could, pre- and post-Yao.
"No one really gave us a chance to be in this series," said Shane Battier, the Rockets' designated Kobe shadower.
How's this for resiliency? Houston is now 13-2 this season after double-digit losses. What the Rockets are missing in the paint with Yao sidelined, they've made up for inside their jerseys. Houston would already have a place against Denver in the conference finals if this series was scored on heart.
"That's all it is for us," Battier continued. "We have to play that way. If we don't, we're not talented enough to play with this team. We have to play with energy, with passion and make every single little play we can just to stay in this series."
Upon learning he would miss the rest of the postseason, Yao reminded everyone that basketball is about team, not one player. The words sound trite. But the Rockets' effort and willingness to place the sum about the parts is anything but clichéd.
"It's just us playing," said Houston coach Rick Adelman, who's basically using a seven-man rotation. "It's not about them. It's about us."
The Rockets first five came out with the same energy as Game 4, threatening to bury the Lakers before the first TV timeout. Luis Scola led a relentless attack on the basket, as Houston held a 17-1 lead just 5 1/2 minutes into their first must-win of the Playoffs.
"They jumped on top of us," Bryant said. "They made shots like they did in Game 4."
If the Lakers thought their whipping two nights prior bought them any juice for Game 6, they were sadly mistaken and rudely awaken. The prevailing feeling Thursday was that the Lakers, quiet and businesslike all day, learned their lesson Sunday and wouldn't allow a repeat.
Bryant knew better.
"They're not a chump team," he said after his game-high 32 points. "They play hard."
Scola scored 14 of his 24 in the first quarter, which ended with Houston leading 27-15. The team that's won the opening period has won all six games. The Lakers, down 16 at the half, threatened to put an end to that streak with a rally to start the third.
The West's top seeds opened with a 9-0 run and pulled with 54-52 on two free throws from Bryant midway though the quarter. The Lakers had momentum and none of the 18,501 who packed the Toyota Center would have been surprised had L.A. pulled away.
Landry (15 points off the bench) answered with a 3-point play. Battier hit a layup after Bryant's 18-footer. Aaron Brooks followed with a 3-pointer. Crisis averted. The Rockets were back up eight. They finished the third up nine and never led by less than seven the rest of the way, shooting 51 percent to L.A.'s 36.
"We can't allow the Lakers to work harder than we do," said Brooks, who broke a few more ankles on his way to 26 points. "Their talent is superior to us right now. We have to play hard."
Notice a theme? The Lakers hope the return to familiar digs leads to familiar results. Los Angeles is 28-5 in its last 33 postseason games at Staples.
"We play different at home," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It's pretty obvious."
Even if the Lakers take care of business as many expect, they would advance with a ton of questions in tow. Most would center on their resolve.
The Lakers were supposed to be in a different league, long on talent and expectations. Whereas the Nuggets needed just 10 games to get through two rounds, the Lakers are facing a Game 7 against a fifth seed.
The Lakers' march through the West last year didn't include one seven-game series. To a man, the Lakers said they aren't worried about the winner-take-all. "There's nothing to worry about," Jackson mused. "It's just a game."
Bryant talked about how much he enjoys Game 7s, adding there's no reason to be nervous. He also laughed when asked if the Lakers were peaking at the right time. The smile stayed on his face when he confidently shared his thoughts for Sunday afternoon.
"Just win the damn series and get the hell out of this one."
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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