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Arash Markazi
June 25, 2009
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June 25, 2009

Fight To The Finish


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IT WAS A SERIES THAT WAS SUPPOSED to be over before it began. The Lakers had swept the Rockets during the regular season, beating them in all four of their meetings, two of those wins coming when Houston was healthy. By the end of the series the Rockets would have Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo—who have a combined 22 All-Star Game appearances—reduced to nothing more than well-dressed cheerleaders at the end of the bench. L.A., meanwhile, had a deep and talented lineup that was fully armed and expected to easily advance to the Western Conference finals.

But any thought that the Rockets would simply roll over died quickly when Houston beat the Lakers 100-92 in the series opener at the Staples Center. Shane Battier and Ron Artest—two of the toughest defenders in the league—made Kobe Bryant earn every one of his 32 points on 31 field goal attempts.

The series would seemingly turn in Game 2 when L.A. not only won 111-98 but also pushed, elbowed and even cheap-shotted the Rockets during a game that resulted in five technicals, two ejections and a one-game suspension for Derek Fisher, who floored Luis Scola with a forearm shiver in the third quarter. Midway through the fourth, Bryant caught Artest near the throat with an elbow that caused Houston's volatile forward to get in Bryant's face and yell at him before being ejected. "It was a good, physical game," Bryant said with a smile afterward.

The Lakers took back the home court advantage in Game 3, beating Houston 108-94 and snapping the Rockets' nine-game home-winning streak. The following day news came that Yao, who had a team-high 28 points in Houston's Game 1 win, would miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken left foot. But just as the Rockets had flourished after losing their other All-Star (McGrady) in February, the team played its best basketball of the year after losing Yao.

In a shocking Game 4, Houston ran all over L.A. for a 99-87 win, leading by as many as 29 points. Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks scored a career-high 34 points, and Battier drained five three-pointers. After the game, when asked if he was embarrassed by the team's performance in the "Mother's Day Massacre," Lakers coach Phil Jackson told reporters to give the Rockets "some f------ credit."

In Game 5, L.A. handed Houston a 118-78 beat-down, a margin tied for the Rockets' worst ever in the playoffs. But anyone thinking that the Lakers had finally come around was once again reminded of their Jekyll and Hyde personality, as the Rockets' 95-80 win in Game 6 was just as lopsided as their loss in Houston. The Lakers fell behind 17-1 and couldn't make it interesting in the fourth quarter.

In only the second Game 7 played in Los Angeles since 1988, L.A. finally eliminated the Rockets 89-70, ending a series in which the home team dominated the final four games. After the win Lamar Odom, standing by his locker, was asked why the Lakers couldn't play up to their capabilities in every game, as they had at home. "To make it interesting," he said with a smile. "It's Hollywood, you know."