By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted May 18 2009 7:26AM
LOS ANGELES -- After the No. 1 seeded Lakers finally rid themselves of the Rockets in a should-have-been-shorter seven-game series, Kobe Bryant said that the one thing he learned about his team was that they're "bipolar."
Fortunately for L.A.'s championship chances, Sunday's 89-70 clinching win in the Western Conference semifinals also taught the Lakers there is a holistic antidote to their affliction: play hard.
"I think we learned that if we play hard every night and we're ready to compete, starting on the defensive end, we're going to give ourselves a chance," Pau Gasol said after finishing with game highs of 21 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks. "Hopefully we're going to carry that into the next round and to a championship. That's something we need to do consistently no matter what, no matter where we play."
Gasol, who has never fully embraced his position of power in the middle -- always lingering on to the flair and finesse he learned while playing point guard in his youth -- played like a 7-foot, 250-pound man should.
His game has always been like a doughnut. Well rounded, for sure, but that hole in the center? That about summed him up. Sunday he was a bear claw, showing more aggression than the entire Rockets frontline combined. While Chuck Hayes was airballing shots inches from the basket, Luis Scola was pulling his flag football routine of grabbing Lamar Odom's jersey, Carl Landry was launching desperation threes and Ron Artest was scoring a grand total of two points in the paint, Gasol was putting on his best Dwight Howard impression nearing a 20-20 and leading L.A. to a 55-33 advantage on the glass.
"He answered the challenge and he played like one of the best players in the world,'' Kobe Bryant said.
"Kobe always tells me to leave no bullets in the gun," Gasol said.
The second gunman at the palm tree knoll known as the Staples Center wasn't who you would expect.
Bryant didn't go off, scoring a forgettable 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting. In fact, he seemed more involved with protesting fouls with the three referees than he was in making plays with his four teammates on the court.
No, Gasol's partner in arms was Andrew Bynum. His series struggles -- zero points and two rebounds in Game 4, 14 and six in Game 5, zero and seven in Game 6 and 14 and six in Game 7 -- epitomized the seesaw seven games that Gasol's team took to eliminate the Rockets.
Bynum, who until Sunday looked more like a playoff-inexperienced 21-year-old kid than the 7-foot, 285-pound presence he's capable of being, set the tone from early. He helped out on defending Aaron Brooks on the pick-and-roll as he collected five points and two blocks in the first nine minutes, checking out of the game with his team up 11 and Houston shooting 2-for-15 from the field.
"We had a post-practice talk with Kurt Rambis, Pau and myself did, and we were able to cut off Aaron Brooks' penetration as well as challenge shots at the rim," Bynum said. "They didn't get many easy layups and I think that changed the course of the game."
They looked like Rambis out there too. There were no glasses, mustaches and short shorts mind you, but the activity level, the moving bodies, even the cheap shot Bynum got in on Brooks (when he tossed him to the floor and drew a technical foul) were vintage Rambo. Bynum said that the key to his personal turnaround was that he "just relaxed" coming into Sunday.
Brooks, who averaged 30 points in Houston's two blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, was held to 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting to go with five turnovers.
Houston was supposed to be the loose team, already beating the odds by forcing a Game 7 with All-Stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady out of the lineup. But Bynum and L.A. made them look tight as they jumped out to an 18-point lead midway through the second quarter that would swell to as much as 31 and never dip below 15.
The victory not only secured a date with the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals (Game 1: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN), but it scored a big win for statistical reasoning. Home teams improved to 82-20 all-time in Game 7s, the Lakers remained undefeated wearing their white uniforms this season and Phil Jackson is 5-0 all-time against Rick Adelman in postseason series.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde, bipolar Lakers -- who showed the world the best and the worst they can be two times each in Games 4-7 -- learned something about themselves. That's the best kind of self medication there is. L.A. might have already known it had what it takes it in them, but it finally realized how to implement that.
"You have to believe if you're going to be at this level of the game," Jackson said. "You have to believe as a player and you have to believe in the players as a coach."
You also have to believe that if the Lakers don't apply the lessons learned against Houston to their series with the Nuggets, school will be out for summer before L.A. wants it to be.
|NBA TV Update: 3 Pointers at 3|
NBA TV has the latest news from around the Association.
|Warriors' Stephen Curry wins 2014-15 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award|
The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, who set a single-season record for three-pointers made and led the league's best regular-season team in scoring, assists and steals, has won the 2014-15 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
|Stephen Curry's Top 10 Plays of the 2014-2015 NBA Season|
Check out the top 10 plays of the season from the Kia NBA MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
|Get Your Feet in the Game - Euro Step|
TNT's Kenny "The Jet" Smith demonstrates how to do the Euro Step.
|Go Big or Go Home: Warriors and Wizards off to a Good Start|
An all-access look at Sunday's action, as Golden State and Washington jumped out to a 1-0 lead in their Conference Semifinal series.