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Sunday, May 17, 2009
The redemption: Lakers ground Rockets

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers got more than expected from Ron Artest and Co. during the series.

LOS ANGELES -- When an entire team responds in a moment of crisis, as the Los Angeles Lakers did in this how-did-we-get-here Game 7 against the Houston Rockets, the credit goes to the coach.

The series certainly wasn't shaping up as Phil Jackson's finest hour. The starting lineup hadn't clicked at tipoff in the previous three games, with Games 4 and 6 beginning so badly you wondered if he spent the pregame showing a boring movie like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

His squad couldn't put away the undersized Rockets. He violated coaching protocol by answering questions about the Denver Nuggets when there were still two games left to play in this series. He even had the audacity to complain about his injuries when Houston has Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo in suits. He blew his vaunted cool once in this series, cursing in a news conference, and even said that he'd woken up an hour early on Sunday and was nervous before Game 7. Then he commented on that startling admission.

"I look it don't I?" he said, his face just as uncaring as ever.

And just like that, Phil was back to being Phil. The captain of cool.

"Teams tend to take the personality of their coach," Lamar Odom said. "And I think we have."

Jackson paced through the pregame locker room a little more than usual, like a teacher proctoring an exam, both surveying the mood of his players and acting as a deterrent to any goofing off.

As for his message?

According to Luke Walton, it was the "same thing as always, 'We know this team, they know us. If we execute and play defense for each other, then we're going to win.'

"And he was right."

Their 89-70 victory in Game 7 was everything the Lakers could have envisioned, right from the outset. The Lakers led 22-12 and that was the ballgame. The help defense choked off Aaron Brooks' drives, forcing him to dish to teammates for long jumpers. Trevor Ariza demonstrated the benefits of hustle, showing that sometimes all that matters is getting to the right place at the right time and inadvertently tipping in a Pau Gasol miss. Andrew Bynum showed tall in the lane and blocked shots and put back offensive rebounds. In the ultimate example of the Lakers' defensive plan and offensive balance coming to fruition, Chuck Hayes had more shots than Kobe Bryant in the first quarter.

Bryant submitted to the greater good of the team, a victory for Jackson in a battle that began a decade ago. Bryant's game was better measured on the right side of the box score, with the five assists, three steals and two blocked shots, than in the columns on the left (33 minutes, 4-for-12 on field goals). At one point Jackson called for Bryant to enter the game, then reassessed the matchups and told Bryant to sit back down. Bryant did as he was told. He understood that in this game -- in keeping with the policy he followed for most of the season -- the important thing in the long championship run was for his teammates to contribute.

"We're going to need them to get that confidence," said Bryant, whose 14 points tied for third on his team, but were more than any Rocket scored.

If the rule of thumb is that championship teams need two Hall of Famers in their prime, Gasol looked the part Sunday with 21 points, 18 rebounds, three blocked shots and a nasty attitude that included a shove of Luis Scola. Bynum finally gave the Lakers that second big man, with 14 points and six rebounds.

Jackson's continued use of Derek Fisher in the starting lineup didn't cost them the series and finally paid dividends in Game 7. There was Fisher, contesting a Brooks 3-pointer, or pulling up for a jumper in his face at the other end and outscoring the Lakers' nemesis 4-0 in the first period.

It was the Rockets who lost their character, turning from the plucky overachievers to a group that looked as if it didn't belong at this level. They missed their first 12 shots. Brooks couldn't even make a layup in the first quarter, kept making mistakes throughout the game, and wound up with more turnovers (five) than assists (three).

In the next round they won't get Brooks making his first Game 7 start. The Lakers will get Chauncey Billups, the most accomplished point guard in the playoffs. It's like the step up from Piston Hurricane to Bald Bull in the old Punch-Out video game.

But maybe the Nuggets won't be facing the same maddeningly inconsistent Lakers team.

Jackson's method has always been to let the players grow on their own, because ultimately they'll have to rely on each other out on the court.

The Lakers sound as if they'd learned their lesson. For one thing, they discovered "that we're bipolar," Bryant said.

More seriously, "we learned that if we're ready to play and ready to compete on the defensive side, that's going to set the tone," Gasol said.

Jackson called it "the belief factor."

"You have to believe if you're going to be at this level," Jackson said. "You have to believe as a player, and you have to believe in the players as a coach."

For a man with as many accomplishments as Jackson, he doesn't have many singular defining moments. Not the "Take a stand, kick some [butt]" speech like Pat Riley or the "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!" bellow from Rudy Tomjanovich.

If the Lakers take full advantage of this reprieve and go on to win the championship this season, Jackson can submit this game. The redemption.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.