LOS ANGELES (AP)—All is well again in La-La Land. The real Los Angeles Lakers showed up, and in a Game 7, no less.
With Pau Gasol(notes) dominating on both ends of the court, the Lakers emphatically silenced the doubters and the Houston Rockets, winning the decisive final game of the Western Conference semifinals 89-70 on Sunday.
Playing with emotion, Gasol scored 21 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. The Lakers looked like the conference’s top-seeded team, not the maddeningly inconsistent one that was pushed to the limit by the undermanned, smaller Rockets.
Trying to reach the NBA finals for the second straight year, the Lakers host the opener of the conference finals against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Los Angeles won three of four from Denver this season.
The Lakers have been so up and down in this series that coach Phil Jackson said before Game 5 that they had a little bit of Jekyll and Hyde in them. That was the night the Lakers raced to a 40-point win at home, only to follow it up two nights later with a 15-point loss, the second straight game they were blind-sided in Houston.
There are any number of theories as to why the Lakers have had a split personality.
It turns out that home-court advantage and a smothering defense were all it took to jump-start the Lakers, who made sure they didn’t choke this one away against the No. 5 seed.
The Lakers dominated the paint on both ends, forcing the Rockets into turnovers and bad shots. The owned the backboards, taking a 55-33 advantage, and blocked 10 shots. They had an 8-0 lead a few minutes in and widened it to 25 points on Gasol’s jump hook shortly before halftime.
After the game, Bryant patted Gasol on the shoulder and offered words of congratulations.
“I was just proud of the way he played,” Bryant said. “He answered the challenge and he played like one of the best players in the world. I was just excited for him.”
“We all know what he can do offensively. I just felt like defensively, he had a superb game,” Bryant said.
Gasol made 10 of 19 shots. He left to a nice ovation with 3:34 remaining in the game.
“I think we learned that if we play hard every night and we’re ready to compete, starting on the defensive end, we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Gasol said. “Hopefully we’re going to carry that into the next round and to a championship. That’s something we need to do consistently, no matter what, no matter where we play.”
This one was practically over before the fans settled into their seats.
With Houston missing its first 12 shots, Los Angeles used two Houston turnovers and a blocked shot in racing to an 8-0 lead. Gasol blocked a shot by Scola and fed Bryant for a layup. Scola’s turnover led to Ariza’s tip-in of Gasol’s miss. A turnover by Brooks set up Ariza’s 3-pointer, forcing Houston to call timeout with 9:32 to go in the quarter.
Houston missed seven shots during the next 2 1/2 minutes, and didn’t get on the scoreboard until Brooks made two free throws just more than five minutes in.
“Coming in here for Game 7, we knew they were going to give us their best shot, especially in the first quarter,” Battier said. “To be honest with you, we just didn’t have energy to match it. Unfortunately, after we got past the first quarter we played them pretty straight up, but the damage had been done at that point.”
During one sequence, Odom blocked a shot by Brooks, Bryant ended up with the ball and whipped a crosscourt pass to Ariza for a 3-pointer and a 13-2 lead.
Houston made only 5 of 20 shots in the first quarter, while the Lakers had 17 rebounds, including 12 on defense.
The Lakers were up 22-12 at the end of the first quarter and steadily pulled away.
Leading by 19, the Lakers scored six straight late in the quarter. Bryant stole a pass and fed Ariza for a slam dunk, bringing Jack Nicholson out of his courtside seat.
It was 51-31 at halftime.
“Obviously, the Lakers are more experienced than us, but I thought we were the better team,” Artest said. “I thought it was a good learning experience for these guys. They’ve been through a Game 7. Most young teams get swept. That will really help the Rockets in the future.”
The team leading after the first quarter has won all 13 of Houston’s postseason games. … Bynum started at center for the Lakers. Odom, still nursing a bruised lower back, replaced Bynum during a timeout late in the first quarter.