LOS ANGELES – They gathered at midcourt to share hugs and a few parting words. Derek Fisher(notes) tapped Luis Scola(notes) on the chest, a few inches below where he'd speared him some 11 days earlier. Kobe Bryant(notes) and Ron Artest(notes), too, lowered their elbows and bid each other farewell.
Somewhere amongst all the warm embraces and fist bumps, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers would have been wise to tell their worthy opponents something more than goodbye.
Something like thanks.
The Lakers needed the Houston Rockets to push and drag them through the 13 days and seven games of this series, even if the greatest drama usually filled the headlines on the mornings in between.
They needed to be humbled, even if the feeling isn't certain to stay with them.
They needed Sunday afternoon, when, prodded – shamed – into raising their effort and energy, they realized how good they can be.
The Lakers convincingly, finally, dismissed the Rockets with an 89-70 victory, closing out a series they should have ended one game, if not two, earlier. Give the Rockets credit. They played hard the final four games after Yao Ming(notes) joined Tracy McGrady(notes) and Dikembe Mutombo(notes) on the bench. But this was always about the Lakers, and the question hanging over them this past week was simple:
Did they want to compete?
That lesson means nothing if the Lakers don't carry it over to the Western Conference finals, where the rested and rugged Denver Nuggets are now waiting. There's also no guarantee they will; these Lakers handle adversity far better than they do prosperity. Given another night to gloat over their most recent victory, they could show up Tuesday feeling just as full of themselves as ever.
Still, for a few hours at least, the Lakers looked like they had learned something worth remembering. On this day, even Pau Gasol(notes) cared enough to defend. On the Rockets' opening possession, 18 feet from the rim, he swatted away Scola's shot. The Lakers forced Houston into turnovers on the next two trips down the floor and the rout was on.
The Lakers credited their defensive improvement to the second half of their Game 6 loss in Houston. After falling behind 17-1 in that game, they gathered in the locker room at halftime and vowed enough was enough.
"Even though we lost that game, we understood that there was another level still that we could go to defensively," Bryant said.
The problem is that it took the Lakers this long to come to that conclusion. After the Rockets surprised them in the series' opener, they recovered to win the next two games. With Yao suffering a season-ending hairline fracture in his left foot, the Lakers looked ready to steam into the West finals … except the Rockets routed them in Game 4, leading by as many as 29 points. The Lakers responded with their own 40-point rout and again looked ready to close out the series … except the Rockets again rolled over them.
Asked what the Lakers had learned from this series, Bryant laughed.
"That we're bipolar," he said.
The Lakers spent the past week denying energy and effort was a problem only to admit at the end of the series what everyone else had already realized. Energy and effort was the problem.
"We definitely could have played a lot harder," Bryant said.
"We definitely realize that if we don't play hard," Ariza said, "we're not going to beat anybody."
"You don't want to have blowout situations in the playoffs where your effort is futile or you haven't given yourself a shot to win a game, regardless whether it's home or away," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We just didn't do that in that series. We weren't prepared from the first game, which could possibly be part of our problem as a coaching staff."
Success came too easily to some of these Lakers. Bryant, Fisher and Jackson weathered years of postseason battles against the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings. But Gasol was swept out of the first round three consecutive seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies then suddenly found himself playing for a championship last season with the Lakers. Andrew Bynum(notes) missed all of last season's playoff run with a knee injury. Ariza was also recovering from an injury last year.
This season, the West didn't produce a suitable challenger to the Lakers until the playoffs began. The Lakers even swept all four of their combined meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.
"Obviously, with what we accomplished last year we just sort of shortcut some of the experience it takes to become a champion," Fisher said. "We got to the doorstep. This year, that's not an excuse or something we're relying on and saying, 'OK, we're still young.' We want to win right now. At the same time, we're still learning that isn't easy to do."
The Lakers also know the Nuggets won't be as forgiving as the Rockets. The Rockets limped through the last half of the series, starting a 6-foot-6 center. The Nuggets are bigger, healthier and full of confidence.
To beat Denver, the Lakers will need their big men to play as they did Sunday or come close to it. Gasol had 21 points and 18 rebounds, Bynum went for 14 and six and both helped corral Rockets guard Aaron Brooks(notes), who had spent much of the series splintering the Lakers' pick-and-roll defense. It said something about the Lakers' performance that they rolled over the Rockets with Bryant making only four shots.
"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.
The Lakers should have known that by now, but better late than never. They'll be short on rest and preparation for the Nuggets, but they're also humbled and hungry. They'll be wise to remember the feeling.