LOS ANGELES – So, this is what all those nights in January and February were like …
Kobe Bryant(notes) leaning back in his chair on the bench, towel slung over his left shoulder, grin stretching across his face. Jordan Farmar(notes) throwing in a 3-pointer at the end of the quarter – actually, Jordan Farmar throwing in any shot, at any time, will do.
The crowd chanting for free tacos. Better yet: The crowd chanting for a backup center. We want Mben-ga!
Mbenga in tow, the Los Angeles Lakers regained their air of dominance on Tuesday, announcing their return to the playoffs – or was it their arrival altogether? – with a 118-78 victory over the Houston Rockets. This was their best performance of the postseason, two days after their worst, and that meant … what exactly?
"It doesn't do anything but bring home the seventh game, guarantee us home-court advantage," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Actually, the Lakers prefer that the next game they play at Staples Center be the opener of the Western Conference finals rather than a seventh game against the Rockets. They now lead the Rockets 3-2 in the teams' conference semifinal series, with Game 6 scheduled for Thursday in Houston. Coming off a 40-point victory, their largest in the playoffs in more than 23 years, they should be heavy favorites.
Then again, the way this postseason has gone for the Lakers, most specifically this series, anything is possible.
Translation: The end result is all that matters. Jackson has said these Lakers have some "Jekyll and Hyde" in them, and if they happen to remain consistently inconsistent it appears they'll offer few apologies. Tuesday's crushing victory could be a sign they're getting better, or, perhaps, it means they're just merely awake.
"The playoffs go from elation to severe depression with the matter of only a loss," Jackson said. "This is something where you have to maintain your edge all the time."
Give the Lakers credit for this much: They're utterly predictable. Provoke them and they almost always respond. They'll float through games, choke up leads, and, then, finally, when challenged, push back. It's a dangerous way to live, but it's their way.
Deep down, you have to imagine Kobe Bryant doesn't like it, either. There's no excuse for the Lakers no-showing in Game 4, but, for now, he's continued to play along. If some of his younger teammates are still feeling out this whole playoff thing – wasn't last season's humbling loss in the NBA Finals lesson enough? – he'll try to lift them when needed.
The Lakers insisted they merely needed to sharpen their focus and adjust to how the Rockets played without center Yao Ming(notes). There's some truth in that: They did a better job containing the penetration of the Rockets guards; raising their defense also created turnovers and quickened their own attack.
It's also true the ball didn't move as freely for the Rockets (we're looking at you, Ron Artest(notes)). After watching Artest rumble right then left, nearly punt the ball off his knee then hoist up a contested 22-footer, it's a wonder Shane Battier's(notes) head didn't explode. Not that Battier was doing wonders with the ball himself, missing five of his seven shots.
With Lamar Odom(notes) limited by a sore back, Jackson decided to start Bynum, in part, because his young center looked "amped." So, fully amped and ready, Bynum contributed 14 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes, a significant bump from the five points and three rebounds he averaged in the series' previous four games. He and Pau Gasol(notes) played well off each other in the opening quarter, and the Lakers took advantage of Houston's 6-foot-6 starting center, Chuck Hayes(notes).
One game doesn't mean much, but if it proves to be a watershed moment for Bynum, the Lakers will take it. As Fisher admitted: Bynum, despite his sporadic playing time, remains important to what the Lakers need to do to move forward, particularly if they advance to face the Denver Nuggets in the West finals.
"It's not just a matter of saying, 'All right, let's put him out on the floor and things are supposed to happen,' " Fisher said. "He's a really good basketball player, so the rest of us have to be willing to sacrifice and put him in position to be successful.
"If that means one less shot for me, one less shot for Kobe, one less shot for Trevor [Ariza] – so that he can get four or five more opportunities to be effective around the basket – that's what we have to do."
If Bynum regains some of his fluidity and explosiveness along the way, all the better. But he was at least active and energetic, and that was an improvement for most of the Lakers from two days earlier. The Lakers were dominant enough that Bryant didn't even need to play in the fourth quarter, a first in these playoffs.
"We want to carry over," Bryant said.
"The effort and energy we played with tonight is not going to be enough for Thursday," Bryant added. "We're not playing some chump team."
Finally, some urgency.
Those intimidating Lakers have arrived, or returned, or something. Come Thursday, they get a chance to show whether they plan to stick around for more than a game.