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Lakers living in worry-free zone

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo Sports

HOUSTON – Phil Jackson says he isn't concerned, and why should he be? The Los Angeles Lakers had already done what they set out to do. They beat the Houston Rockets once at the Toyota Center.

Expect them to do it twice? Imagine the greed.

So, yes, the Rockets plowed the Lakers on Sunday afternoon, routing them 99-87 in a game in which they led by as many 29 points. And, yes, they did so without Yao Ming(notes), Tracy McGrady(notes) or Dikembe Mutombo(notes). With Ron Artest(notes) missing 15 shots. With a starting center who needs a booster seat to reach Yao's dinner table.

But Jackson isn't worried. Phil Jackson doesn't do worry. Not even with the Rockets having squared the West semifinal at two games each. The series has been shortened to a best-of-three affair, but that's no reason for the Lakers to sweat. They still have home-court advantage.

"I don't know what a red flag even means," Jackson said.

That, of course, is the problem with these Lakers. From the top down, they've operated with a sense of entitlement for much of this season, as if a return trip to the NBA Finals were more birthright than battle. Their confidence now borders on hubris.

The Rockets are wounded, hungry, filling with belief. On Saturday night they learned Yao would be shelved for the remainder of the playoffs because of a hairline fracture in his left foot. Then they did what they've done for the second half of this season: They played hard.

"We were joking that everyone but us got the memo that we weren't supposed to show up," Rockets forward Shane Battier(notes) said.

The Lakers should still be heavy favorites to advance; teams often play with a renewed purpose after losing a star player only to run low on fuel a game or two later. But that's not the point. With a chance to take control of the series, the Lakers couldn't even be bothered to compete. They didn't close out on shooters. They watched the Rockets beat them to the ball. They even allowed Artest to comically throw a 60-foot inbounds lob to Aaron Brooks(notes) for an alley-oop basket at the third-quarter buzzer.

If LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers watched, they likely laughed. This is the best the West has to offer? The Denver Nuggets also should feel much better about themselves today. Sweep Dallas and they're probably looking at five days off before the start of the conference finals.

For all of their talent, for all of their 65 regular-season wins, the Lakers are still searching for their edge. They aren't championship-ready yet, and the growing question now is whether they'll ever be.

"Are we embarrassed?" Jackson said, miffed that Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers even suggested the possibility. "No, we're not embarrassed. Houston played great. Give them some [bleeping] credit."

The Rockets deserve credit, bleeping or otherwise. Brooks delivered an electric performance, splintering the Lakers for a career-best 34 points. Battier helped limit Kobe Bryant(notes) to 15 points while scoring 23 himself, 11 of which came in the game's first six minutes. Chuck Hayes(notes), all 6-foot-6 of him, contributed nine rebounds and four steals while starting in place of Yao.

Still, it's one thing for the Lakers to lose. It's another for them to not even show up. Boosted by three 3-pointers from Battier, the Rockets ran out to a 17-4 lead. The Lakers didn't push back until the fourth quarter.

"We know they were going to come out hard, at least I hope we knew that," Bryant said. "We knew they weren't going to back down or just go away. We just didn't come out with the sense of urgency we would have liked."

Prior to the game, Jackson said he was on guard for a possible letdown. Yet during the Rockets' initial six-minute barrage, he didn't burn a single timeout. Jackson has long operated that way. He prefers to give his teams the freedom to work out their problems. But in a game in which he knew the Lakers would have trouble matching the Rockets' energy, wouldn't it have been wise to call his players over and remind them that, well, it's time to start playing?

"Was I angry with the team? Of course you're angry with the team," Jackson said. " … But you say as much as you can as a coach, and the players have to execute and do it on the floor."

After the Lakers lost the series' opening game, Los Angeles Times' beat writer Mike Bresnahan reported that Jackson chewed out the team at the following day's practice. His public message, however, has held up for much of the season: No reason to worry. Teams lose leads, even games. When it matters, we'll be all right.

Jackson has nine championships and another two Finals appearances on his résumé, so he knows a thing or two about coaching. But it's also fair to question whether his approach is right for this team. These Lakers have a casualness about them. They've frequently played down to the level of their opponent, surrendering large leads and, sometimes, games.

"We're a little bit of a team that needs to have sometimes a spark put in us to play," Jackson said.

Apparently, Jackson is unable to light the fire himself. If he says there's no reason to be concerned then why should his players be concerned?

In truth, the Lakers have an ever-increasing list of issues that point to why this series could continue to be tough for them. Lamar Odom(notes) left Sunday's game with back spasms that might affect his productivity, if not also his status, for Game 5. Andrew Bynum(notes), who should have been able to exploit Yao's absence, again didn't look ready to play, fumbling a pass almost as soon as he stepped on the court. Unless Odom is sidelined Tuesday, the few minutes Bynum has received should go to Josh Powell(notes).

Then there's Derek Fisher(notes). He returned from his one-game suspension, but he might as well have spent this one tweeting, too. That Brooks kid is fast!!!!!

With Yao no longer clogging the lane, the Rockets freed Brooks to attack off screen-and-rolls. Pick-and-roll defense isn't a new problem for the Lakers. One year after their embarrassing Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, they continue to view defending as occasional option rather than necessity.

"We played probably our worst game of the year," Odom said.

The Lakers figure to play better Tuesday. Battier is already planning for Kobe to "come back with a vengeance." The Lakers also tend to raise their game to the level of their opponent, so how they play against the Jazz and Rockets may not be the best indication of how they'd play against the Cavs.

Still, it's one thing for the silly national media to portray Yao's loss as an end-all, be-all moment for the Rockets. It's another for the Lakers to also treat it as such. These Rockets have fought through adversity all season. They don't plan to stop.

The Lakers should know that now. They jetted back to L.A. with their one win. They still have home-court advantage. They still have the deeper, more talented team.

Jackson says he's not concerned. This time, the Lakers would be wise to not believe him.

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