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BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers prove they do have two sides

They turn it on and decisively win Game 7 against Houston, but how much can we trust them? The Denver Nuggets will have the unlikely role of the more emotionally sound team starting Tuesday.

May 18, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Well, it was the least they could do.

Having dragged this town kicking and screaming into an unwanted game of chicken Sunday, the Lakers at least had the decency to make it fun.

Pau Gasol played with Ker-Pau cartoon strength. Kobe Bryant played with M-V-P defensive fervor.

Sasha Vujacic actually made a jumper. Derek Fisher actually had a steal. Andrew Bynum actually showed a pulse.

They sprinted. They scratched. They swarmed.

They learned?

They have no idea.

"We're bipolar," concluded Bryant after the Lakers' completely expected 89-70 victory over the completely surprising Houston Rockets in the deciding game of the Western Conference semifinals.

There's the rub. That's the point. After what happened in the last two weeks against the Rockets, how much can we trust them?

How much can they trust themselves?

This much is clear -- the Denver Nuggets are stepping into an unusual situation when they take the Staples Center court Tuesday for the start of the Western Conference finals.

For once, the nutty Nuggets will be the more emotionally balanced team.

For once, the combustible Nuggets will be the grown-ups.

After a Sunday afternoon filled with sweaty relief, it remains difficult to know what to think about the Lakers.

Are they the team who lost three games in this series to a Rockets team they should have swept?

Are they the team that was scolded by Bryant on Sunday even after the emotional Game 7 victory?

"Our effort could have been much better," Bryant said of the series. "We definitely could have played a lot harder."

Or are they the team that dominated the Rockets in the other four games with championship swagger?

Are they the team that afterward dressed in bright summer clothes with huge smiles and no worries?

"These are the playoffs, everyone is going to lose games," Lamar Odom said. "It's how you bounce back that shows your heart and character. Today, we showed that."

On Sunday, nobody showed more than the fans, the Staples Center faithful filling the room with an unabashed, if unrequited, love.

Jack Nicholson danced around and made choking signs at the officials. Thousands of others waved corny giant foam fingers at the Rockets. In the end, the entire place stood and serenaded the losers with the "Na-na-na-na, goodbye" song.

All this faith, however, was tinged with a faint sense of desperation and insecurity. It was as if the fans hoped they could avoid heartbreak simply by shouting over it.

Worried murmurs rippled through the crowd even after the shaky Rockets missed their first 12 shots, kicking the ball such that they looked like the Rockettes.

With every Houston basket, the crowd sighed. With every four-point run, the crowd buzzed.

Not that these Lakers aren't trustworthy, but the timing of that "Na-na-na-na" song? It wasn't played until 37 seconds remained and the Lakers were up by 25.

"I think we were stubborn," said Trevor Ariza, trying to explain the series. "I think we thought we could be the best team on talent alone. I think we learned that in the playoffs, teams will step on your throat to get where they're going."

So they've learned about playoff basketball? Well, let's see them pass an upcoming series of at least four tests on it.

Let's see the Lakers imitate Sunday on a consistent basis against the Nuggets.

Let's see Gasol scream like he screamed when he scored 21 points with 18 rebounds while earning the day's loudest standing ovation from a humbly desperate L.A. crowd.

"I'm pretty emotional, I'm pretty passionate," protested Gasol. "It's in my blood."

We know all about that blood, Gasol having been pounded by the Rockets for most of six games until he finally decided to fight back.

Let's see his aggression continue against Kenyon Martin, who is, like, Chuck Hayes times three.

Let's also see Bynum work as he worked Sunday, with 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks, a real presence.

Let's see that kind of work against the Nuggets' Nene, who has one name but many moves.

Let's see Fisher and Jordan Farmar keep defending as they defended Sunday, holding pesky Aaron Brooks to four baskets and pressuring him into five turnovers.

Their next obstacle is not as fast, but twice as savvy, a guy named Chauncey Billups.

And, finally, let's see Phil Jackson keep adjusting as he adjusted Sunday, his team defense holding the Rockets to 37% shooting, his renewed big men leading a rebounding margin of 55-33.

Although he had the most to lose if the Lakers were upset by the Rockets, Jackson quietly survived and advanced, as he has done for years, but he can't stop here.

George Karl is not a great strategy coach like Rick Adelman, but he feeds his team's emotion. Jackson will have to work to make certain his team matches that emotion.

"It's like suspended life," Jackson said of the Lakers' victory. "You're alive for seven more games."

Alive and, what?

Alive and well? Alive and kicking?

How about, just, alive.

Considering the Lakers spent parts of the last two weeks imitating the alternative, that will have to be enough.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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