Rockets vs. Lakers: Game 7 questions

Originally Published: May 15, 2009
ESPN.com

Kobe BryantRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesHow did this series go seven games? Once a Finals lock, the Lakers are now in a precarious position.

Game 7. Two of the most magical words in sports. And now we have two Game 7s: twice the fun, twice the tension, twice the drama.

Our experts have weighed in on both series. See below for their thoughts on Rockets-Lakers (Sunday, 3 ET, ABC) and click here for their analysis of Magic-Celtics Game 7 (Sunday, 8 ET, TNT).

1. What has been the most surprising thing about this series?

Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: This closely fought series has somehow had stretches when both teams played quite poorly -- and I'm not just talking about missed shots. The Lakers have been lackadaisical defenders at times, and the Rockets suffered a stretch where they could barely complete a pass without a turnover. It's hard to know what Game 7 will look like.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Lakers' horrendous starts. Not only were they blasted away in Games 4 and 6, but it's easy to forget they were down early in their Game 5 victory as well. We saw Kobe set the tone in Game 4 in Utah. He didn't do that here.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: I'm surprised the Rockets have been able to go 2-1 against the Lakers without Yao Ming. I'm surprised at the Lakers' lack of mental toughness and focus. A team with that much experience (on the floor and on the bench) and with Kobe Bryant as its leader should be more zoned in. I'm also surprised at the calm, almost carefree, responses that Kobe and Phil Jackson have had to these losses.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: No. 1, the Lakers' inability to exploit Andrew Bynum's size advantage since Yao went down. The Rockets simply don't have the personnel to defend both Pau Gasol and Bynum and yet they have succeeded at that.

No. 2, Kobe Bryant's emotional outbursts about Shane Battier's inability to guard him. One, no one doubts that. Two, he should know that emotional swings in the playoffs are draining and counterproductive. If it was meant to bolster his team's fickle confidence and aggression, it hasn't worked.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: The sheer and utter selfishness the Lakers showed at the offensive end Thursday night. Their lack of effort in the first quarter is getting all the attention now, but roll back through the tape -- virtually every trip was zero passes or one pass and a shot, usually a poorly chosen one. It's the type of game that makes you question whether these guys even like each other.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: As the only guy on the 10-man ESPN.com staff who picked the Rockets (and as someone who has gone on L.A. radio repeatedly throughout the series to defend that pick), I have been amazed at how people think I've lost my marbles for picking Houston.

But I still say they match up favorably at every position except shooting guard. They're tougher, they might be more strong-willed, and they have an underrated beast down low in Luis Scola, whom I'd take over Pau Gasol if I had to pick one of them to be alongside me in a foxhole.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Rockets' resilience to play on without Yao and the Lakers' utter lack of focus/passion/toughness on the road. How do they expect to win a game in raucous Denver or Cleveland if they can't be more ruthless against short-handed Houston?


2. In Game 7, what is a key or two we should watch for?

Abbott: Let's assume Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola and Shane Battier will be very effective. The key will be: Who else will stand out?

If the answer is something like Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, then the Lakers can't lose.

If the answer is more like Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry, the Rockets will be in the Western Conference finals, and every GM in the NBA will spend the summer trying to get a player like Aaron Brooks.

[+] EnlargeLuis Scola
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Yao out and the Lakers' frontcourt struggling, Luis Scola exploded for 24 points in Game 6.

Adande: Kobe. He needs to revel in the moment and take over Game 7. If the rest of the Lakers look so indecisive in the playoffs, Game 7s are even worse. They're when you learn who you can count on. Not many options for Kobe, apparently.

Broussard: In Game 5, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum established themselves early and let the Rockets know they would use their size to dominate inside. They must do that again. Bynum has to be a factor. The Lakers must also match Houston's toughness and intensity, and of course, find a way to keep Aaron Brooks from living in the paint. If L.A. does that, it will win.

Bucher: First, the Lakers' ability to eliminate Aaron Brooks' dribble penetration. When they've done that, they take away the engine to the Rockets' offense.

Second, Houston turnovers. They are, by and large, not a great ballhandling or passing team. It says everything about the Lakers' lack of defensive intensity that they haven't exploited that more.

Hollinger: Whether L.A. can get fouls on Houston's frontcourt, especially Chuck Hayes. The Rockets can't guard Pau Gasol when Hayes is off the court, and any situation in which the Rockets are forced to play Brian Cook is a huge, huge advantage for L.A.

Sheridan: Ron Artest's temperament. This is the biggest game of his career, and there is going to come a point when he gets frustrated. Now, does he stifle it for the good of the team? Or does he let himself get out of control, blow a gasket and blow the Rockets' chances? The guy has an enormous amount of energy, but it's a queston of which direction he channels it to.

Stein: Will the Rockets play free and nothing-to-lose loose? Will Kobe get help from Gasol and Bynum or try to "win the damn series" on his own? Will Aaron Brooks continue to torture the Lakers' overmatched guards on pick-and-rolls?


3. Which player, coach or team has the most to lose on Sunday?

Abbott: The Rockets have lost some elite players to the struggle of getting this far. But it's the Lakers who have more to sweat. They have been penciled into the Finals for months. How many chances will Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson get to earn a title without someone like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal to take the credit?

Adande: Again, Kobe. A prime opportunity to get his post-Shaq ring if he wins, another year of his prime gone if he doesn't. Kobe won't be around forever.

Broussard: Kobe. He has the supporting cast and the coach to at least reach the Finals, and if he falls short in the second round to an injury-depleted Rockets team, his ability to make his teammates better and lead them to the Promised Land will be subject to legitimate questions. We've already seen Kobe-led teams drop a 3-1 lead to Phoenix (2006, first round) and lose a 24-point lead in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Add a heavily favored Kobe-led crew falling to a Rockets team without its two best players and there's a sizeable chink in his armor.

Then there's Phil Jackson, who's been unable to get this team motivated consistently. Also, Lamar Odom, for playing soft and inconsistent, and to a lesser extent, Andrew Bynum, will catch heat if L.A. loses.

Bucher: Kobe, Phil Jackson and the Lakers. This is their last best chance to get a ring and separate themselves from ghosts past -- Shaq for Kobe, Red Auerbach for Phil, last year's loss in the Finals to the Celtics for the entire organization. If the Lakers get knocked out in the second round by an undermanned Rockets team, it might just be the most embarrassing playoff loss in Lakers history.

Hollinger: Kobe Bryant, without a doubt. Since L.A.'s last title in 2002, his track record in elimination games is unbelievably awful -- there's the second-half mail-in in Phoenix, the 131-92 debacle in Boston, the Game 5 shellacking in Detroit, and the 110-82 beatdown by the Spurs. Each of these defeats can be rationalized on its own. But if they lose Sunday? It gets much harder to shrug them off.

Sheridan: Pau Gasol. His résumé is littered with big-game failures (2008 Olympics, gold-medal game; 2008 NBA Finals; 2007 Eurobasket gold-medal game; every playoff game he ever participated in for Memphis). But the Lakers are going to need him to be clutch because they are getting very, very little from anyone else other than Kobe. Pau's big-game failures were one of the key reasons why I picked Houston in seven, believing the Rockets could win that type of game on the road.

Stein: Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be. Phil, Gasol and Odom would all be wounded by the shrapnel, but losing this early to the Yao-less Rockets would be an unfathomably massive hit to Kobe's cred ... and would pitch the Lakers straight back into the crisis mode we all assumed they left behind after trading for Pau.


4. Which team should win (or should have won) this series, and who wins Game 7?

Abbott: Houston had a shot at Game 2 in Los Angeles, which would have put them up 2-0 against the conference champs before even playing a home game.

After literally flipping a coin, I'll say Rockets -- although they could also lose by 20.

Adande: The Lakers should have won in Game 5. They should have shut this down by pouncing on the Rockets early in Game 4, but let Houston regain a little confidence.

[+] EnlargeLamar Odom
Harry How/Getty ImagesLamar Odom's ailing back could prevent the Lakers from advancing to the Western Conference finals.

The Lakers still win Game 7. As impressive as the Rockets have been, they'll eventually miss having a scorer to get them easy baskets.

Broussard: The Lakers win Game 7. They're the better, more talented, more experienced team, and they've got the best player on the floor. The Lakers should have already won this series, but their mental state has resembled the Magic's more than the Cavs' and Nuggets' -- and that's not a good thing. Like Orlando, if they lose, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.

Bucher: The Lakers should have won it and still should win it. But even if they do, the Nuggets play as hard as Houston and have a ton more talent. The Kobe-LeBron matchup is now looking like a Melo-LeBron affair.

Hollinger: The Lakers should be favored, of course, and I still have to think they'll prevail at home in Game 7. The fact that they won by 40 in Game 5 is a pretty good sign of the talent difference, and the extra day of rest will be huge for Lamar Odom's back.

However, the fact that there's even a chance of L.A. losing three out of four to a team of nine role players is in itself a condemnation. From the coach on down, the Lakers have been way too casual, and that's why we've got Lakers-Rockets on Sunday instead of Lakers-Nuggets.

Sheridan: Well, obviously the Lakers are the better team. I never said they weren't, and I thought they'd absolutely kill the Rockets twice, which is exactly what has happened.

But again, if the Rockets can play from ahead or get to the midpoint of the fourth quarter and still be within striking distance, I like their grittiness, guts and savvy to get the job done and pull off the upset.

Stein: I'm picking both of the home teams in Game 7, but Houston -- not Orlando -- is the underdog most likely to give us an upset, especially if Brooks keeps going nuts and the Lakers get nothing from their fading bench. If this is as far as it goes for the Rockets, they've been as impressive as a team that goes out in the second round can be.