The Houston Rockets are a team built on hard nosed, physical defense. It’s one of the best defenses in the league, and, at its heart is dogged determination that relies on strength and physicality more than foot speed.
In street-ball parlance, they punch you in the mouth. And Wednesday night, the Lakers punched back.
The Lakers took a lot of heat last year after the NBA Finals for being soft. They weren’t soft beating physical Utah or San Antonio teams, but the media meme became that they were soft by the end of the Finals, and there was an element of truth to it. Lakers not named Kobe Bryant or Derek Fisher wilted in the bright lights of the title series, lights magnified by the intensity of the Celtics.
The response from Lakers brass and fans coming into the season was that would be different because Andrew Bynum and his wide body would be in the paint.
But the truth is, the Lakers came back physically and mentally tougher even without Bynum. Pau Gasol hit the gym and put on muscle (not that it’s easy to tell, but he did). Lamar Odom, a guy from the streets of Queens, came back with a little more New York attitude. Bottom line, the team as a whole came out fighting, getting in teams faces and pushing back all season long — they didn’t have to do it because they were blowing teams out most of the time, but they fought when they needed to.
But there are no easy games against the Houston Rockets — they bang and push and wear you down physically. They play more like the 1990s Knicks than any team still in the NBA.
And the Lakers sent a message that they will push back with their play Wednesday night. Anyone who thinks this is fake physicality, and that this team is soft, has not watched it all year. That includes columnists at the LA Times.
Lakers fans were by and large proud of Fisher for decleating Luis Scola. Send the message that these Lakers don’t put up with crap, that they fight back. It worked on the team, too— a Lakers bench that gave back the lead in the first half came out after that incident and outplayed the Rockets. Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton had big games, they were fired up.
Who is going to win this series is still very much in doubt. But when the Lakers lose another game or two in this series, somebody is going to write that they are not tough enough (or, that they are dirty and overcompensating for being soft). But a columnist falling back on that had his or her mind made up before everything started and cannot see beyond their preconceived notions.
The good news for basketball fans is, now we have got a real series.
Kurt Helin is pretty much a grinder on and off the court, and runs the blog Forum Blue & Gold.