- David Thorpe, NBA
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We've seen the Lakers outplay a struggling Houston team. We've seen the Rockets whip an uninspired Lakers team. And now we've seen Houston play extremely well when L.A. had a chance to close the series, and beat a Lakers team that competed hard. So coach Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and the rest of that team might finally understand that giving a strong effort in Game 7 is not nearly enough to guarantee victory. Houston is capable of beating L.A. in the final game because of its incredible defense and an assortment of offensive players who are all capable of putting together a magical performance.
Los Angeles Lakers
• Defensively, everything starts with slowing down Aaron Brooks, who has scorched them for 79 points on 27-of-47 shooting from the field in their three wins. They have not proved they can employ any singular strategy to shut him down, but there a few things they can try to do to make things tougher for him:
1. Stop going under ball screens. Brooks made seven of his 13 3-pointers in their last two wins and really puts pressure on L.A.'s defense if he gets going from long range. The Lakers often go under those ball screens, giving Brooks the time to launch.
2. When Pau Gasol stays back on ball screens, he needs to take the proper angle to force Brooks toward the baseline. Brooks is a better finisher when he gets to the middle, and he has more passing options from that spot. Fanning him out to the baseline will make it much tougher on him to score or create for others.
3. Have Lamar Odom and Gasol show harder on ball screens while being determined not to get beat until Brooks has made three dribbles. At least then their help-side defenders will be repositioned toward the paint to take away the easy passing options. If the L.A. defenders get beat on the first or second dribble, Brooks can cause problems in the lane.
4. Do not foul him on drives; make him finish among the trees. And do not ever foul him 30-plus feet from the rim.
5. Be more disciplined when helping off him. Make sure the man with the ball is a bigger scoring threat in that situation before leaving Brooks in the corner.
6. Make him work more on defense, and have Jordan Farmar challenge him more when Brooks has the ball by applying more ball pressure to him.
• Other than Brooks, L.A. has to find counters to Luis Scola. He erupted for 24 points and 12 rebounds in Game 6 and had no turnovers. If he's going to take on a big scoring load again for Houston, L.A. has to make him pay more for all those extra touches. When the Lakers zone up behind the action, someone has to find Scola. Trevor Ariza in particular was asleep on this, walking away from Scola just as the ball arrived in his hands. Almost every Lakers post player has the length to deny Scola the ball on the post, forcing him to bump out higher to get the ball. It would be smart to do that. And if he proves just as effective in Game 7, sending a second guy to help on him is a must.
• L.A. did a better job on the boards in Game 6, but Game 7 will bring out the beast inside Houston. Limiting Houston's second-chance points is as important as any other mission L.A. has.
• Offensively, L.A. actually performed OK in Game 6, other than its shooting. The Lakers had just 10 turnovers. Gasol was involved in the action. They hurt Houston on the glass with 15 offensive rebounds. But they shot horribly. It's likely they'll do better at home, but if the start is ugly, it's important that they not panic and not abandon Gasol inside. The third quarter in the last game, by far their best one, featured immediate paint penetration via the pass and dribble. It opened things up for their shooters and earned plenty of easy buckets inside. A constant flow of Gasol touches and Kobe drives is the best recipe to attack Houston's defense. Any possession that does not feature one or both of those two actions is a mistake, other than in transition.
• What adjustments? This team has figured out the best way to play well. The Rockets want to push the ball and let Brooks drive the Lakers crazy. They want Shane Battier to take open 3s regardless of what's left on the clock. They'll call for numerous Scola touches, hoping he can still find ways to score in the post, and they'll space out around him if the Lakers double. And they'll let Ron Artest do what he does, and hope his shooting helps.
• Assuming the Lakers will shoot better, there is a lot of pressure on the Rockets' offense to keep them in the game. The fast tempo they like now runs the risk of letting L.A.'s offensive talents build momentum and a big lead. It also gives Houston more turnover opportunities, an important stat to watch Sunday. Houston has to be quick but must focus on making easy plays.
• Defensively, there are two main items. As always, they must dominate the defensive boards, which slipped a little in Game 6. Finding Gasol on every shot is a must, as is hitting him. The second item is Kobe. It's hard to imagine Kobe being anything but ultra-aggressive anytime he feels the Lakers are in danger of losing, starting from the opening tip. If he can get hot, Houston has to resort to its counter-measures, such as double-teams or traps early. Whatever it is, waiting too long can be deadly.
Los Angeles Lakers
• Ariza has made a number of very poor decisions on both sides of the ball in this series. They need him thinking less and competing more, using his great length and quickness to make plays on defense in transition. He can be a huge difference-maker on defense.
• How many minutes will Kobe play? He played 38 in Game 6 but may not come out in this one.
• Houston needs to shoot well, period. Because of the way L.A. has to defend ball screens with Brooks, the Rockets can always get a good shot. Making enough of them will allow them to drive more and get to the line -- that will be key to Houston's staying in the game and having a chance to pull it out.
Game 7s can be blowouts if the home team uses the energy in the building to play its best basketball. This series has seen its share of that. A team like Houston figures to be at its best on defense and the boards, which will help them immensely at the start of the game. Much depends on whether the Lakers explode out of the gate, because if they do it does not much matter what Houston is doing.
But to expect an offensive explosion from L.A. and a great effort on defense is too much from this Lakers team. It's not that the Lakers can't do it, only that it can't be predicted. So Houston could very well have similar good fortune on offense as well. But a fast-paced offensive shootout favors the home team. I can make many arguments for L.A. to win, and just a few for Houston. The Rockets are special enough to win Game 7 on the road -- of that there is little doubt. But the Lakers were a terrific team all season, and losing this game at home would require a poor effort from them. I just do not think that is likely.
Prediction: Lakers win Game 7
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng,Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
Scouts Inc. breaks down Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers and picks the winner.