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Lakers ride miserly defense to reach conference finals

BUILDING on a superb defensive performance, the Los Angeles Lakers silenced some of their critics by reaching the Western Conference finals with an 89-70 routing of the Houston Rockets yesterday.

Undermanned Houston had not been expected to give the top-seeded Lakers much of a battle in their best-of-seven series, but forced a decider with a string of whole-hearted displays.

Despite missing Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutombo and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets stunned the Lakers with homecourt wins in games four and six, demanding their opponents respond in game seven.

"Our effort could have been much better in game four and game six," Los Angeles All-Star guard Kobe Bryant told reporters after shooting 14 points and seven rebounds in yesterday's crushing win.

"But still, Houston played extremely well. In a series, it's about making adjustments. And that's what we were able to do."

Bryant said the key adjustment came midway through game six, when the team collectively decided to be more aggressive in defence. Although the Rockets prevailed 99-87, the Lakers' path to the conference finals became clear during the loss. "Even though we lost that game, we understood that there was another level still that we could go to defensively," said Bryant.


Lamar Odom, who came off the bench to make six points and seven rebounds for the Lakers, agreed that the team's resolute defense had paved the way for their series win.

"Our defense was a lot better today," he said. "We stopped penetration. We were able to stop (Houston guard Aaron) Brooks from getting to the hole and we made them take jump shots, and they never got on track."

Asked why the Lakers had failed to defend consistently against the under-strength Rockets, Odom joked: "To make it interesting. It's Hollywood, you know.

"They played well. To get to the championship (final) is hard. You got to expect teams to play their best, especially on their home court."

Spanish forward Pau Gasol, who led the Lakers with a game-high 21 points and 18 rebounds yesterday, said the team had no problem shrugging off erratic displays earlier in the series.

"(We had) all the motivation in the world going into this game," he added. "It's game seven; it's do-or-die.

"I think we are all here to accomplish something great. We had the opportunity today to finish it off and move on to the conference finals. That was the only thing on our mind."


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