HOUSTON (AP)—The shots stopped falling, the passes that worked in Game 4 were turnovers in Game 5, and every loose ball or whistle seemed to go the Los Angeles’ Lakers way.
Two days after one of the most stirring victories in franchise history, the Houston Rockets suffered one of their worst postseason defeats and now face elimination Thursday in Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal series with the Lakers.
The Lakers’ 118-78 win on Tuesday matched Houston’s most lopsided playoff loss. The Rockets say don’t count them out just yet, pointing to their propensity for bouncing back after embarrassing defeats.
Houston dropped 11 games by double-digits during the regular season and won the next game 10 times. The Rockets lost 95-84 to Dallas in their regular-season finale, then beat Portland 108-81 in their playoff opener.
“Our margin for error is very slim, so when you have foul trouble and a lot of turnovers it makes our job really tough,” Battier said. “But we’re going to keep shooting 3s and we’re going home and we’ve historically responded very well to double-digit losses this year. That’s our team.”
At this point, the series may hinge more on how the top-seeded Lakers play.
They came out flat and uninspired in Game 4, and the Rockets built a 29-point lead playing without Yao Ming(notes), who broke his left foot the previous game. Kobe Bryant(notes) called the Lakers’ mindset for the game a “dumb mistake,” and Los Angeles left nothing to chance in Game 5, marching to a 25-point halftime lead.
The Lakers have been criticized for failure to sustain mental toughness throughout playoff series, and Bryant said he’ll demand that younger players come out focused in Game 6.
“Every game, you’ve got to rebuild your momentum,” he said. “It doesn’t carry over. You’ve got to re-establish what you’re trying to do out there on the floor. The energy and effort we played with (in Game 5) is not going to be enough on Thursday.”
Then again, it might be.
Without Yao, the Rockets are forced to use an undersized lineup, with 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes(notes) starting at center. Lakers coach Phil Jackson started 7-footers Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) to take advantage.
Gasol scored 16 points and Bynum, mostly ineffective in the playoffs, added 14. Lamar Odom(notes), who bruised his back in Game 4, came off the bench to score 10 points in 19 minutes and the Lakers scored 56 points in the paint.
“We can throw over the top,” Jackson said. “We don’t have to use penetration off the dribble when we’ve got that kind of size. We were effective right off the start.”
The Lakers also found a way to handle speedy point guard Aaron Brooks(notes) in Game 5, holding him to 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting. Brooks scored 34 points in Game 4, slicing through the Los Angeles defense for layups or hitting open 3s.
Brooks went 0-for-3 from 3-point range in Game 5, part of Houston’s dismal 5-for-29 night.
“We had active hands and active feet,” Jackson said. “We got back and helped each other defensively and made them make tougher passes.”
So how can Houston extend the series?
The first step is getting off to a good start. The team winning after the first quarter has won all 11 of their postseason games.
“That’s a strange stat everybody keeps throwing out there,” said Houston coach Rick Adelman. “I guess we better pay attention to it. That’s very important. We need to get into the game early.”
Adelman said his team played poor offense from the beginning of Game 5, even though they led 18-12 in the first six minutes. The Lakers finished the opening quarter with a 23-6 burst and the Rockets never challenged again.
“We made some shots early, but I didn’t like the way we were playing. It was fools’ gold,” Adelman said. “We need to have more movement and patience.”
Adelman dismissed the 40-point loss as an anomaly for the Rockets, and he expects a much better performance at the Toyota Center, where they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games.
“It’s very important for us to get our crowd into it and realize that the team that played (Tuesday) is not who we are,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and get ourselves ready to go at the start of the game.”