Down 1-0, urgency the issue for Lakers
How critical was Game 1 for L.A.? It was the difference between inevitability and doubt
Kobe Bryant corrected himself within a second, but in that slight slip came the realization that he is almost alone when it comes to the type of experience the Lakers could use now that they find themselves down 1-0 in their series with the Houston Rockets.
"We've been -- well, me and Derek [Fisher] have been -- in these situations before, where you drop a Game 1," Bryant said.
He didn't mean simply losing Game 1. He meant losing Game 1 and coming back to win the series. Huge difference.
Practically the entire Lakers roster remembers what it was like to lose a Game 1. It happened to them in the NBA Finals last year, and once the Lakers fell behind they never so much as pulled even in the series. You hear Lakers players talking about their humiliating 39-point loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 as a motivational tool for this entire season, their answer for what keeps them from ever getting too complacent. Complacency isn't the issue now. It's been replaced by urgency. And what the Lakers lack as a group is familiarity, a common knowledge of what it's like to successfully climb out of a 1-0 playoff hole.
Bryant, Fisher and coach Phil Jackson have done it twice together: in the 2001 NBA Finals against Philadelphia, and in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals against San Antonio. That came with an abundance of battle-tested teammates. By the time they mounted those comebacks they had already won Game 7s together, popped championship champagne together, been through so many of the NBA playoff obstacle courses. They had an answer for every situation.
They also had a different version of Fisher. This version is in a shooting slump, hitting only five of 20 3-point attempts in the playoffs, not looking like the guy who provided the turning point of that 2004 comeback by making a jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining.
Fisher, Trevor Ariza and Sasha Vujacic will continue to get open 3-pointers as long as the Rockets make Bryant such a priority, and it's doubtful they will shoot a combined 0-for-10 on 3-pointers again. So Step 1 for the Lakers isn't about making adjustments; it's about making shots.
When it comes to X's and O's, the Lakers need more movement. That translates into passing on offense and helping on defense, where players were either caught looking the other way or out of position too often. And if the Lakers can't stay in front of Houston point guard Aaron Brooks, they'll have to determine which way to funnel him and where to send help.
The good news for the Lakers is Jackson is 6-8 when losing the first game of a playoff series, a success rate that's more than double the overall winning percentage of Game 1 losers. But that can't match perfection; he's 42-0 when winning Game 1 (24-0 in Chicago, 18-0 in Los Angeles). Phil Jackson's taking the first game of a series makes the outcome even more of a lock than Tiger Woods' holding the lead entering the final round of a golf tournament.
That's how critical Game 1 was, the difference between inevitability and doubt.
So much is subject to change. The Lakers' outside shooting won't be as woeful. Yao Ming might not be as dominant as he was in Game 1, when he scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He couldn't sustain that output in the Portland series, and if Andrew Bynum can avoid the early foul trouble that limited him to 15 minutes in Game 1 he might have a hand in slowing Yao -- or at least attacking him at the other end and perhaps drawing some more fouls on him. The mercurial Ron Artest might not have a line as efficient as his 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting, with seven assists to boot.
But when you make defense and effort a priority, as the Rockets have, you can expect similar results from game to game.
"Our team has been so terrific at maintaining that ever since we got this group together," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "They commit to it. We say we must get better as a game progresses defensively. The more we see a team, the more you see what a team's going to do, the more you know as a team what you have to do."
For the Lakers there's still an element of curiosity. They'll have to win without the luxury of home-court advantage now. They'll have to rally from behind now. In short, they'll have to do something they haven't accomplished collectively.
"It's interesting to see how we progress," Bryant said. "It's not going to be easy. Houston is certainly up for the challenge. But so are we."