I still cannot believe that the Lakers’ season could actually be over 24 hours from now. The problem is, I’m not sure the Lakers realize that either. They’ve had multiple wake up calls during this playoff run—perhaps more of a playoff jog or playoff brisk walk—and have continually hit the snooze bar.
So now they’re down to a one-game, winner-take-all Game 7 against an undermanned, undersized Houston team that clearly has the Lakers overmatched in one key area. Use whatever term you want: heart, desire, will, want-to, effort, energy, enthusiasm. The Rockets bring it and the Lakers wing it. I haven’t been this frustrated, well, since the Lakers last played an elimination game. For those who need a reminder, they were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics, 131-92. The Celtics celebrated an NBA championship and the Lakers vowed to come back tougher this year. Ha.
Toughness—both physical and mental—remains the glaring vulnerability of this Lakers team. Their recent history with their backs against the wall isn’t encouraging either. Including the Boston Finals debacle last year, L.A. has faced elimination just three times in the post-Shaq era, and they’re 0-3 in elimination games.
In 2006, the Lakers met the Phoenix Suns in the first round. L.A. took a 3-1 series lead, but the Suns won the next two to force a Game 7. And in the series finale, the Lakers folded, losing 121-90 in a game in which they never led.
The following year, they met up with Phoenix in round one again. This time it was the Suns who jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. But the Lakers would not force a Game 7—or even a Game 6. They lost Game 5 by a count of 119-110, again never leading at any point.
Throw in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Pistons and 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, and the Lakers are 0-5 in their last five elimination games. They haven’t won an elimination game since they took both Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Sacramento in 2002. Incidentally, that team was also the last Lakers team to win a championship.
With home court advantage and memories of a 40-point win the last time the Rockets visited Staples Center, the Lakers are the clear favorites in Game 7. But if they’re going to win and advance, they can’t rest on their laurels. They have to come out from the opening tip with something to prove and give a spirited full 48 minutes of intensity and execution. If not, Houston is more than capable of stealing another game and the series, leaving the Lakers and their fans another long, agonizing offseason of questioned toughness and finger-pointing.
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