Los Angeles, CA (Sports Network) - Pau Gasol dominated the paint with 21 points and 18 rebounds, six of those on the offensive glass, as the Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the Western Conference finals with an 89-70 win over Houston.
Kobe Bryant scored 14 points with seven rebounds and five assists as the Lakers took the deciding Game 7 of the conference semifinal series and advanced to take on Denver, starting Tuesday night at the Staples Center.
"I was just proud of the way he played," said Bryant of Gasol. "He answered the challenged and he played like one of the best players in the world. It was exciting for him. I just felt defensively he had a superb game."
The Lakers' lead in the first half reached 25 before settling on a 20-point cushion at the intermission and the Rockets never challenged, feeling the loss of Yao Ming more than ever in defeat.
LA outrebounded Houston 55-33, held a 46-30 edge in the paint and got healthy contributions from the likes of Trevor Ariza with 15 points and Andrew Bynum, who scored 14 and grabbed six boards as a nice complement to Gasol.
"Pau (Gasol) and I just went out an played today. It's definitely a sense of relief. The more I play, the more comfortable I feel on the court," said Bynum.
The Lakers have won 16 of their last 18 home playoff games and moved to 13-1 all-time in Game 7s at home, having won the last nine.
The Lakers were able to win the series thanks to capturing their last two games at home by a combined 59 points.
"They're much more active on their home court," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "This is a problem a coach is always chattering about, you don't let a crowd or noise dent your energy. The energy level obviously played more prolific in this kind of a game than it was the other nights."
The Rockets fell behind early and never recovered, missing their first 12 shots of the game and ending the first quarter shooting a dismal 25 percent. Aaron Brooks led the way with 13 points while Luis Scola had 11. Houston dropped to 5-4 all-time in Game 7s and 2-3 on the road.
Since the 1977 postseason, Houston and the Indiana Pacers stand as the only two NBA teams to win a pair of Game 7s on the road.
"They stepped up their intensity and we stumbled in the beginning. We couldn't make any shots in the first half. It would have been great to have a low post presence. We gave it a good shot but they were a better team today," said Brooks.
Despite the Rockets losing Yao to a small hairline fracture in his left foot, Houston had won two of the previous three games with him out of the lineup. The Lakers, though, never let the smaller Rockets gain the upperhand Sunday.
Both teams started relatively cold from the field and while the Rockets opened up Game 6 with a 17-1 start, the Lakers turned the tables to kick off Game 7.
On Thursday, LA missed its first eight field goals until Bryant sank a jumper with 6:21 remaining in the opening quarter.
On Sunday, Houston missed its first 12 shots from the floor as LA opened up a 13-2 advantage. Chuck Hayes finally put in a layup with 4:44 left on the clock but a pair of jumpers from Derek Fisher followed for a 17-4 Lakers lead.
Despite the slow start, Houston found themselves down only 10, 22-12, after the first 12 minutes as the Lakers also struggled from the field, shooting 39.1 percent (9-of-23).
The Lakers extended their lead early in the second quarter as Bynum muscled his way through the lane for two and Lamar Odom dropped a three-ball from the top of the key for a 29-15 margin nearly 3 1/2 minutes in.
A Brooks jumper on the other end briefly interrupted what became an 11-2 run by the Lakers as Odom and Bryant sank back-to-back shots and Bynum hit two from the line for a 35-17 margin just prior to the midway point.
Houston was able to stay within 15 if only by a pair of field goals from Von Wafer, but Gasol took over on the inside with two offensive rebounds leading to putback baskets and a 43-24 lead.
Gasol's dirty work under the basket sparked a 12-2 stretch from the hosts that allowed for a commanding 51-26 lead. Only Wafer had an answer for Houston over the surge and his bucket to close the half had the Rockets entering the break down 51-31.
Houston missed the length of Yao in the first half with Lakers' bigs Gasol and Bynum combining to score 19 points while nearly equaling the Rockets in rebounds with 17 to Houston's 19. Ariza knocked down a pair of threes and led the team with 13 points.
"We started strong offensively and defensively. We played hard all the way through. It's not over, it's just another step," said Ariza.
Meanwhile, Houston improved its shooting to a meager 32.5 percent with Wafer leading the team with eight points after 24 minutes of play.
LA looked to put the game away early in the second half. After Brooks opened the third with a jumper, Bryant nailed a three to start a 7-0 spurt that gave the hosts a 58-33 advantage.
The Lakers' lead was 24 midway through the quarter after Bryant sank a jumper and Bynum finished off an alley-oop slam from Ariza.
Brooks helped Houston make inroads with a pair of three-pointers and Ron Artest's layup closed the frame with the deficit still at 19.
The Rockets didn't get their first field goal of the fourth until the nine- minute mark and the Lakers were able to coast from there. A 9-2 run ended on consecutive Gasol buckets for a 82-56 lead just past the seven-minute mark.
"This was a good experience. I'm happy to be young enough to play with these guys later. The Lakers are an experienced team. I think this Game 7 will help the Rockets in the future. Next year these guys will be ready," Artest said.
The last and only time LA lost in a Game 7 on its home floor was in the 1969 NBA Finals, a 108-106 setback to the Boston Celtics...The Lakers have won five of the eight playoff series from the Rockets, including the last three...Wafer finished with 10 points for Houston...Artest was 3-of-10 from the field for seven points with eight rebounds and five assists...Shane Battier, who had a playoff career-high 23 points to lead a dominating effort in Houston's Game 4 victory, scored just three points on 1-of-6 shooting...The Rockets wound up shooting 36.8 percent (28-of-76) for the game while LA hit at a 46.7 percent clip from the field...The Nuggets are heading to LA following a five-game series win over the Mavericks in their semifinal matchup...The Lakers beat the Nuggets in three of the four meetings this season.