Two months ago, even three weeks ago, the Lakers were considered the dominant, unbeatable, unstoppable team out West. Their trip to the finals was fait accompli. We were all just being entertained until things mattered; when Kobe and LeBron started playing each other.
But the last two days have changed that perception.
First Denver came out against Dallas and played their best game of the playoffs, their best game of the season. This is a team filled with athletes finally putting it all together — and playing defense — at just the right time. Then Monday night the Lakers looked sloppy and were thrown off their game by the Rockets defense, and they dropped the first game of their seven game series.
The Lakers may still make it to the NBA Finals, but they are going to have to earn it. It will be no cake walk.
That may be the biggest lesson from their loss Monday night. The Lakers were alternately brilliant and uninterested against Utah, but they were still far too much for an overmatched Jazz squad and the Lakers won the series four games to one.
Houston came in and slapped them across the face. The Rockets play great defense — with Yao Ming as a backstop their perimeter defenders can be aggressive and as a team they close out well on jump shooters. The result is that teams tend to hurry their shots just a little, and miss.
The Lakers did plenty of missing — they were 2 of 18 from three, many of those very good, wide open looks. Pau Gasol is traditionally automatic from 15 feet, but he missed at least four from that range. With the other guys missing shots, the Lakers as a team reverted to 2005-06 form— nobody else can do it so we better hope Kobe can. He single-handedly held them in for a while, but it’s going to take more than Kobe to beat these Rockets.
The Lakers most likely will bounce back on Tuesday, and they may well win the series, but after what will clearly be a tough Rockets series, the Denver Nuggets will be waiting.
The Denver team that imposed its will on Dallas. A Nuggets team that has more athletes than the Lakers. A team with an intimidating shot blocker (Chris Anderson) and a fill-it-up shooter (JR Smith) coming off the bench and big stars (Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups) starting. A team that can match the Lakers in the paint. One that can expose the Lakers weakness at point guard.
Betting against the Lakers after one off night shooting would be foolish. But suddenly the thought of them losing and not returning to the NBA Finals doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore. Does it?