Rockets force Lakers to season’s edge

HOUSTON – They kept saying they expected this, but no one believes them. Kobe said it. Phil said it. Pau said it. They were all lying.

The Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to roll to the NBA Finals, cruise to a waiting LeBron, and while it’s rarely as easy as dreamed, it wasn’t supposed to be the Houston Rockets that gave them a series, pushed them to the brink.

And that was before Yao Ming(notes) went down, and even Ron Artest(notes) admits, “I was pretty messed up in the head. I’m always messed up in the head, but I was even more messed up in the head.”

“We’re not talented enough to play with this team,” Shane Battier(notes) said, without a hint of humility. He was stating a fact and everyone knows it. The Lakers are better than the Rockets – except maybe they aren’t.

The Rockets won 95-80 on Thursday, evening the West semifinal at three games each, and now everything goes to L.A., this entire 65-win, championship-in-the-making season on the line for the Lakers, the final stop in a roller-coaster series. Here are these dang Rockets, who don’t know this is supposed to be a show, who think it’s a damn fight, who just may have figured out L.A.’s weakness.

Punch the Lakers first and maybe they don’t punch back.

The Lakers didn’t in Game 6, falling behind 17-1 and needing a monster effort just to make it a game before it wasn’t. This was everything the Lakers promised they would avoid, claimed they understood. You don’t let these Rockets hang around, you don’t give a puncher’s chance to a team with Artest and all these glue guys who don’t know any better.

“After Game 4 there was a lot of talk about how embarrassed they were,” Battier said of the Rockets’ 12-point victory. “I hope they weren’t too embarrassed tonight.

“There was a lot of hubbub,” he continued, enjoying every word of a faux concern. “They took a lot of flak. Their media was saying, ‘Are you embarrassed about that?’ Well, I hope it wasn’t embarrassing tonight.”

No, the Lakers weren’t expecting this. This wasn’t the plan. Battier is mocking them, wearing a confident look that comes with being on a nothing-to-lose team, 48 minutes to glory.

“The goal right now is to win the damn series, get out of this series and try to prepare for the next one,” Kobe Bryant(notes) said, and he was telling the truth on that one.

Kobe’s been respectful throughout, at least in front of the media. Battier and Artest have worn him down, though, and made him work, and there is nothing Bryant would like more than to just be done with the two of them.

Even if the Lakers win on Sunday, the game plan against them is so clear. Attack them and make them stand and deliver, make them prove they won’t descend into finger pointing and mass pouting.

“Don’t whine,” Phil Jackson told them during one timeout. “Don’t look disgusted. Just play.”

They didn’t play. They didn’t protect the rim. They didn’t hustle. They didn’t show up ready. Mostly, they whined and looked disgusted. They lead the Rockets in 7-foot starters 2-0 yet watched Houston win the first-quarter rebounding battle 14-9.

And if they think Houston is tough and relentless (and it’s tough and relentless enough to beat them), then what about Denver?

Kenyon Martin(notes) and the Nuggets are sitting at home watching this and licking their chops.

“I don’t know if we’re in their head,” Battier said. “I [just] don’t know that they thought this series would go seven games.”

They didn’t, and you could see Jackson trying to maintain his poise before everyone’s psyche came crashing down.

“No, I’m not [worried],” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s just a game.”

It’s not a game. It’s the season and this is the second round, and that’s way before a team with this many weapons and this much experience is supposed to fall. The Lakers haven’t shown the killer instinct, haven’t finished off anyone. They haven’t matched the intensity of the Rockets, at least during the last two games here in Texas.

“They don’t quit,” Bryant said.

“Hey, we’re part of the NBA, too,” Battier said. “We’ve got the NBA logo socks to prove it.”

Jackson only can fall back on his belief that he has the better horse in the race, not to mention home court. He has to believe that this can’t happen, not against a team that trots out Chuck Hayes(notes) and Von Wafer(notes) and Carl Landry(notes). Not one without Yao and T-Mac. Didn’t the Lakers just crush the Rockets by 40?

“In our last game [at Staples Center] we beat them by whatever,” Jackson said of Tuesday’s blowout that was supposed to effectively end this series. “We play a different game on our home court, and that is pretty obvious to see.”

Back in the Lakers’ locker room, Sasha Vujacic(notes) noted that the Celtics went to a Game 7 in the first and second rounds last season and won the championship. Trevor Ariza(notes) said this was good because it “woke us up.” Luke Walton(notes) figured a deciding game was a litmus test worth getting out of the way, saying, “If we can’t win a Game 7 at home, then we are not a championship team.”

That much is undeniable for the Lakers. It’s about the only thing they can be certain of right now.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, May 15, 2009