The Rockets had done their rope-a-dope thing far beyond what seemed within reason or good sense.
As if determined to inspire the Lakers to forget them, they missed shots as they rarely have and scored far fewer points than they have in any first half this season. They clanged 3s and even missed free throws. They lulled the Lakers into a daze, then made their move.
The Rockets hung around long enough a sudden fourth-quarter run to put them within two with 3 ½ minutes to play. The problem with that strategy – if it could be called a strategy – was that they still had to take care of those final minutes. They could not. The Lakers pulled away one last time, sending the Rockets to an 88-79 loss Tuesday at Staples Center.
Yet before they could lament letting a win so clearly within their reach get away, wasting a night they kept Kobe Bryant under control and found themselves within a 3-pointer in the final minutes, they knew they did not play nearly well enough to consider the game another that had slipped away.
“To beat the world champs, you have to play well,” said Shane Battier, who as with the Rockets as a whole, shot horribly most of the night but helped lead a late run. “We didn’t play enough. In retrospect, you can say, ‘Kobe only had 22, we held them to 90 points. That’s a game we should have won.’ But to beat the Lakers in LA, you have to play really, really well. We didn’t.”
The Rockets had a late chance. Aaron Brooks hit a runner to give him 18 points and cut the lead to four with 66 seconds left and Battier slapped the ball from Kobe Bryant’s grasp. Bryant, however, picked up the loose ball and hit a short left-handed jumper for a six-point Lakers lead with 48.5 seconds remaining.
Brooks missed a 3 with 35.7 seconds left, and Bryant tacked on a free throw. The Lakers did not clinch the win, however, until Lamar Odom got the rebound of Bryant’s missed second free throw, his 19th rebound of the game, and put in two free throws for a nine-point Lakers lead.
With Bryant held to just seven second-half points, giving his 22 on 9 of 23 shooting, Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 24 points, making 10 of his 16 shots and scoring 16 in the second half to make up for Bryant’s relatively off night and the absence of Pau Gasol because of a strained hamstring.
“He was catching the ball really deep,” Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. “I thought we could have done a better job keeping him out. That’s the best I’ve seen him finish against us.”
The Rockets problems, however, were far greater on the offensive end, especially in the first half, when they scored just 33 points, eight shy of their fewest in a first half of a game this season. They made just 1 of 14 3s, rarely venturing into the paint and the Lakers’ length. The Rockets shot so poorly, they made just 4 of 11 free throws in the first half.
“This is what, our 35th game,” Trevor Ariza, who made 5 of 14 shots for 12 points, said. “That’s how we play all the time. I can’t say those (are shots) we don’t want. If the first shot’s available, that’s what we’re going to take.”
The Rockets had trailed by as much as 12 in the first half and again in the third quarter. But they outscored the Lakers, 8-2, to end the third quarter, with Luis Scola and Ariza both driving to three-point plays, before Ariza opened the fourth quarter with a drive to a slam that cut the lead to two, as close as the Rockets had been since the Lakers led, 4-2.
Ariza followed that by drawing a charge on Bryant, his fourth foul and third offensive foul, giving the Rockets more reason to consider the game within their grasp to be stolen.
The Lakers, however, shifted their offense to Bynum and let him go to work, with Chuck Hayes, David Andersen, Carl Landry and Scola all unable to slow Bynum or keep him from catching the ball in the low blocks.
With five minutes left, Bynum had scored 13 second half point and had given the Lakers a 10-point lead. But as they had done throughout the night, the Rockets answered.
Battier, who had missed his five shots, hit a 3-pointer and after Scola put in a jumper, Battier sank another 3, cutting the Lakers lead to two heading into the final 3 ½ minutes
They could get no closer.
In those final 3 ½ minutes, the Lakers scored on seven of nine possessions. The Rockets had improved markedly from their horrible first half. With the game on the line, they had given themselves a chance, but could do little with it.
“I think defensively, we did a great job keeping ourselves in the game on the road,” Brooks said. “It just seemed like we never could get over the hump.
“We had open shots and we didn’t capitalize on their mistakes. They did just enough to keep us away. You don’t like to lose games like that, in that way where you have opportunities to make a push. It seemed like every time out we were like, “let’s go, let’s go.’ We never went.”