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Lakers are talking tough, at least

Lakers players, some bristling at questions about the team's tenacity, are 'edgy' after Game 1 loss, Kobe Bryant says, and eager to prove their grit and challenge physical Rockets.

May 06, 2009|Mike Bresnahan

Suddenly, the preamble to Game 2 of an allegedly innocuous playoff series sounded like the day before Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

The rhetoric was flying after Tuesday's practice, the Lakers' words trying to catch up to the play of the Houston Rockets the previous night.

Coach Phil Jackson was irritated at practice, cracking the verbal whip, according to those who took part in the closed session.

Then Kobe Bryant, who had 32 points on 31 shots in Game 1, practically said the Lakers' 100-92 home loss was a good thing, saying his teammates were a "little edgy" and that he was "more than anxious" to see their response tonight in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Indeed, one loss was all it took to make the first week of May feel like the second week of June.

"I think last year we had a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. It feels good to be tested a little bit," Bryant said. "If you're going to be a champion, you've got to be tested, you've got to answer those bells, you've got to answer the call."

Even level-headed Derek Fisher seemed to bristle at a question about the Lakers' perceived lack of grit against the defense-first Rockets.

"We don't have to answer questions about toughness. We have to win games," he said. "You can ask that question all you want, but it doesn't seem to come out until we lose. The 65 times we won, it wasn't as big a deal, but the 17 times we lost, it was a big deal. Now losing Game 1 on your home court, all those questions start to come back up, but the way you silence that is win games, win a series. That's what we have to do."

Fisher is one of many Lakers who will have to play better to even the series; he made three of 10 shots and had trouble staying with second-year blur Aaron Brooks.

Andrew Bynum gave up too much territory down low to Yao Ming. Lamar Odom had nine points and five fouls.

Somehow, the Lakers made only two of 18 three-point attempts and were a dismal 12 for 19 from the free-throw line.

Some way, they have to push the pace and score against a team that was seventh overall in regular-season defense (94.4 points allowed per game), and that includes 35 games with the offense-minded (to put it kindly) Tracy McGrady.

Somewhere above it all was Jackson, who wasn't close to saying this was the demise of the Lakers, the way he did in 2004 when they fell behind San Antonio, 2-0, Jackson calling it the onset of the "death knell." (That series turned out just fine for the Lakers, who won four consecutive games to advance past the Spurs in the conference semifinals.)

Despite Jackson's demanding demeanor behind closed doors -- "We had a pretty tough practice," Pau Gasol said -- the Lakers' coach presented a no-worries exterior to the media.

"We're not happy about losing, there's no doubt about it, but the sky is not falling," Jackson said. "You [media] guys can do that for us if you want, but we're not at that level. We're not ready to pack up and go home yet."

Jackson did say that Bynum needed to play better defense against Yao, who had 28 points.

"He's got his hand caught in the cookie jar a few times and had to pay the price," Jackson said. "He's got to be much more active as a defender, not letting Yao catch the ball where he wants to. 'Drew has a tendency to just stand behind and play defense because of his size. That doesn't work against Yao."

Said Bynum: "These are correctable issues on my end."

The Rockets, meanwhile, did exactly what they wanted to do, slowing down the Lakers so much that Game 1 was the local taco promotion in reverse, the visitors winning and holding the Lakers under 100.

To paraphrase Houston forward Shane Battier, the Rockets are mucking up the flow of the game while acting as a knuckleball pitcher, keeping the Lakers off balance and low in confidence.

The Lakers outscored the Rockets by an average of 12 points in the fourth quarters of their four regular-season wins over Houston, but the Rockets had enough offense at the right time to take this one, 30-25.

Houston isn't claiming any major victories, however, preferring to dwell on how many shots the Lakers barely missed.

"I think a lot of their shots almost went in. I really believe that," forward Ron Artest said. "It was right there. I was like, wow. I was thinking, 'If a couple of these shots don't humble out and they roll in, it'd be a different game.' "

The Lakers can only hope more of their shots humble through the rim tonight.

Etc.

Reserve forward Luke Walton practiced Tuesday and is expected to suit up for Game 2 after missing the last three games because of a partially torn ligament in his left foot.

--

Times staff writers Mark Heisler and Mark Medina contributed to this report.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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