LOS ANGELES -- If the Lakers had played Game 4 the way they played Game 5, there wouldn't be a need for Game 6.
They're off to Houston with a chance to amend their mistakes and close out the series, carrying a 3-2 lead with them, coming off a 118-78 victory that served as a giant Post-it note to remind them just how good they can be when they do basic things like play active defense and show patience on offense.
Denver 3, Dallas 1
Game 5: Wed., 9 ET, DEN
Los Angeles 3, Houston 2
Boston 3, Orlando 2
Game 6: Thu., 7 ET, ORL
Cleveland 4, Atlanta 0
Now the Lakers have to prove that they can be trusted, that they can bring the same effort from game to game. They've been so up-and-down, they could be a halftime trampoline act. Sometimes it's a slack-off within games; over the weekend it was the impressive Game 3 road win followed by the no-show in Game 4, when the Lakers trailed by as many as 29 points.
Flash-forward to Tuesday night, back home, the celebrities ringing the court, the background familiar, the Staples Center fans a little more energized with the jolt that came from the realization this could be the last home game of the season if the Lakers stumbled. The Lakers led by 42 near the end of Game 5. From the start of the fourth quarter of Game 4, when the Rockets went into cruise mode and the Lakers tried to salvage a semblance of dignity, the Lakers outscored the Rockets 127-70 over the next four quarters.
After Kobe Bryant's 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first quarter helped set the tone for Game 5, he immediately put in the prep work for Game 6 afterward, his face and tone reflecting no joy whatsoever, his attitude as somber as if the Lakers had let another big lead slip away.
"We've got to understand that the effort that we gave tonight is not going to be enough on Thursday," said Bryant, who finished with 26 points in just under 31 minutes. "It's not.
"Every game you've got to rebuild your momentum. It doesn't carry over."
The Rockets couldn't bring it with them from their blowout in Houston. Their problem is that Yao Ming's season-ending foot injury and the Lakers' attempt to deter Aaron Brooks' drives to the basket by crowding the lane have forced them to become a jump-shooting team -- and jump shots are even more fickle than the Lakers' attitudes. After making 10 of their 29 3-point attempts (35 percent) in Game 4, the Rockets made only 5 of 29 (17 percent) in Game 5. When they weren't missing long shots, they were committing 18 turnovers; those are both recipes for easy L.A. baskets, and the Lakers wound up with 24 fast-break points.
The Lakers remembered that the game is won on the inside. They force-fed Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum against the Rockets' undersized front line. They drew fouls on Chuck Hayes, the Rockets' best post defender, and limited him to only 16 minutes of floor time. The Lakers had a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint through three quarters, 56-42 overall.
With Lamar Odom recovering from a lower back bruise that he suffered in Game 4, Bynum started and became reacquainted with the series. It began with a pretty high-low pass from Gasol for a dunk. He added layups and putbacks and wound up with 14 points, which matched his total from the first four games.
"We need his production," Odom said. "I always tell him how well he starts, how important it is for him to play well, and not just put the ball in the basket; we've got so many scorers. Dominate the glass, make it hard for guys to get layups when they come in there. If he does that, then he makes us a lot better."
The Lakers have hoped that scoring a few points would engage Bynum more on defense and on the boards. He did grab six rebounds, while Gasol had 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. They exploited the Rockets, finally, to the point that Houston coach Rick Adelman's adjustments for Game 6 sounded as if they'd require a medieval torture rack.
"Stretch our guys," he said. "See if we can get 6 inches bigger with each one."
Odom will need to stretch, ice and get electrical stimulation on his back, which he said is so tight he still can't bang under the boards, jump very high or defensive-slide very well. He's far from his best, but the Lakers were close to theirs. It just reaffirmed Odom's belief that depth is the team's strength, and when Bynum is playing big and Jordan Farmar is hitting buzzer-beating 3-pointers, the Lakers just have too much for the Rockets.
Perhaps they'll even play like it.
BOSTON -- A 19-footer, good. A 20-footer on the next possession, good.
A 3-pointer that you could see was going to be good as the ball was in flight, and then a 20-foot pull-up jumper and a 5-footer on which he was fouled and then completed the three-point play after a timeout.
Added up, it was a dozen quick points for Marbury, who had totaled only 36 in Boston's first 12 postseason games and 88 in his 21 regular-season appearances.
Boston actually did not gain any ground on the Magic during Marbury's 5½-minute stint on the court; the Celtics still trailed by 10 when he checked out for good with 4:55 remaining after Hedo Turkoglu had made it 85-75 on a bucket with 5:39 remaining.
But Marbury had kept the Celtics within striking distance, and Turkoglu's bucket turned out to be the final field goal Orlando made Tuesday night as the Celtics pulled off a stirring, stunning comeback and took a 3-2 lead over the Magic in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with a 92-88 victory.
It was his biggest clutch performance, Marbury was asked afterward, since when?
"Phoenix-San Antonio, when he hit from half court," Paul Pierce interjected, referencing a first-round playoff series from six years ago.
Marbury shook his head in agreement (forgetting his Team USA-record, 31-point performance in a quarterfinal victory over Spain at the 2004 Olympics in Athens) and had a laugh at his own expense, realizing that the number of clutch performances he had put on like this one could probably be counted in single digits from the time he led Lincoln to the New York City high school championship until this night of unlikelihood in Beantown.
"The timing was right for me to go in and do what I did. When I got in the game, my whole mindset was to create something where we could change the flow of the game," Marbury said, explaining how he had been inspired by a pregame talk between the team and coach Doc Rivers in which the subject was a puzzle, and Rivers' question pertained to which were the most important pieces.
To read the entire Sheridan column, click here.
Tuesday's game started out looking a lot like most playoff games have looked for Stephon Marbury, which is to say it began badly. He started the second quarter and missed both of his shot attempts before Doc Rivers pulled him and reinserted Rajon Rondo. The routine has been for Marbury to get his chance early in the second and to see limited minutes -- if any -- for the rest of the game if he doesn't make shots in that first stint.
In Game 4 on Sunday, he was 1-for-4 over a 6:01 span bridging the first and second quarters and played just 16 seconds the rest of the way.
But then Rondo picked up his fourth foul with 6:31 to go in the third quarter of Game 5 Tuesday night, and Rivers inserted Marbury again. Over the next 2:56, he missed two more shots, and Rivers pulled him in favor of Eddie House. Surely that was it for Starbury.
Rivers gave Marbury one more chance. Marbury entered the game with 11:22 left in the fourth quarter and the Celtics down 69-59. Rondo replaced Marbury at the 4:54 mark and Orlando up 85-75. That goes down as a zero in the plus/minus column of the box score for Marbury, but every fan who watched this game knows the Celtics do not win it without Marbury's 12 points on vintage 5-of-6 shooting. He scored Boston's only points in the first 3:12 of the quarter on two long jumpers as the C's defense floundered and Orlando opened up a 77-63 lead. He made a 3-pointer out of a timeout to cut the lead to 77-66, followed that with another jumper and finished his night with a drive plus the foul before Rondo came back in.
Boston's starters won the game from there with lockdown defense (helped by some Orlando misses from 3-point range) and clutch ball movement, but it was Marbury who kept the scoring margin within reach for the starters to win it. The Marbury optimists (including ESPN's Marc Stein) have been saying since February that Marbury would win the Celtics one game in the playoffs. That did not seem likely before Game 5 on Tuesday. Marbury had been a total nonfactor with the exception of a brief flurry of offense in Game 1, a 4-of-6 shooting night everyone forgot after the Magic opened up a 28-point lead. He passed up open shots and barely looked at the rim when the C's rotated the ball to him on the perimeter.
One of the Sports Guy's followers on Twitter joked midway through Game 5 that the only positive comment a scout could make about Marbury is that he manages to bring the ball over midcourt in less than eight seconds (Simmons posted the joke for all of his followers to see). The Magic knew all of this and basically left Marbury (and Rondo) unguarded Tuesday, allowing their point guards to rove all over the court on defense.
For one night, Marbury made them pay for it. Can he do it again? The Celtics may need him to in Game 6.To read more from Lowe, check out his TrueHoop Network blog, "Celtics Hub."
Glen Davis, Celtics: With Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen struggling with their shot, Big Baby was there to pick up the slack, scoring 10 of his game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter as Boston rallied for the W.
Orlando Magic: They let a double-digit lead evaporate by not making a basket during the last 5:39 of the fourth quarter of a game they were in complete control of.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"They all watch boxing. You're in the 12th round against the champ. You can't be thinking, 'I'm going to put it in the hands of the judges.' You can't do that. You got to knock them out."
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy after Orlando failed to put Boston away in the fourth quarter
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
Stephon Marbury scored 12 off the bench to help Ray Allen and the Celtics erase a 14-point deficit on the way to a 92-88 win that gave Boston a 3-2 series lead over Orlando.
LOS ANGELES -- The Rockets lost Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal by 40 points, and when you suffer a beatdown like that the list of reasons why is long and varied, to be sure.
But somewhere near the top of Houston's what just happened? list is an item that reads: Ron-Ron didn't move the ball.
In a continuing effort to throw post-Yao changeups at the favored Lakers, Houston put the ball in Artest's hands early and often in Game 5 and asked him to facilitate, with Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier running baseline sweeps from wing to wing, and Luis Scola flashing for looks in the low post.
It worked in the beginning.
The Rockets made quick passes and reversed the ball, and the Lakers, hustling to track the ball and eager to play a more energized brand of defense than they had in Game 4, often ended up in mismatch situations (Pau Gasol on Artest out away from the basket, Trevor Ariza a half-step late closing out on Brooks, etc.).
The game was tied 20-20 with 3:35 left in the first quarter, and Houston had connected for assists on five of its first nine baskets, the last of which was a Scola layup on a quick dish from Artest.
But as it turned out, that was Artest's lone assist in 29 minutes of action.
Perhaps enamored with hitting two long-range jump shots early (a 3-pointer from 29 feet out and a 22-foot jumper over Gasol's outstretched hands), perhaps hoping to come back strong after an anemic 4-for-19 performance in Game 4, or perhaps believing that it falls to him to make up for the absence of Yao and his 19.7 points per game from here on out, Artest stopped looking to pass midway through the first quarter, often dribbling down the 24-second clock and then taking bad shots or forcing tough passes into tight spaces.
"We were trying to force the issue and they got their hands on a lot of balls and got to the open court," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman afterward.
"I was pressing early," Artest explained. Deciding when to be a distributor and when to be the first scoring option was, he said, "one of the confusing parts [of playing] without Yao."
The Rockets, as you may have heard, are smaller up front than the Lakers. Their ability to score points hinges almost entirely on ball movement, on creating small gaps and angles on the perimeter and in the paint.
In the Game 4 victory on Sunday, their starters collected 15 assists.
In Game 5, with Artest running the show, their starters managed only seven.
That won't get it done.
Artest (who has hit just 8 of his last 34 shots in this series) ended the night Tuesday talking about how, in the wake of injuries to Yao and Dikembe Mutombo, he and his teammates are still learning what they need to do to survive and advance.
On Tuesday night, against a fired-up Lakers team looking to maintain home-court advantage in this series, the lesson was pretty simple:
"[We] have to move the ball and move bodies," Artest said, rubbing his hands on his head, as if he wanted to be sure it would soak in.
For a good example of the ongoing silliness surrounding the Most Improved Player award, take a look at the voting. Kevin Durant came in third even though he was left off three-quarters of the ballots, while 16 different players received first-place votes. With every other award, there's at least an element of rationality to keep people somewhat constrained, so that normally only three or four players receive first-place votes.
To see the four other Insider Gems, click here.
The Lakers beat the Rockets by 40 points to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series. That matches the second-largest margin of victory in an NBA playoff game in which the series was tied prior to the game (excluding Game 1s). Chicago beat Utah 96-54 in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the 1998 NBA Finals; and Dallas beat Houston 116-76 in Game 7 in 2005.