The Lakers spent the majority of the first half of their opening act on the road in Houston running around the Rockets. Kobe came out firing to the tune of 21 points, and Jamison, starting in place of Pau while he rests his knee tendinitis, added 12. Despite their 13-point halftime lead and holding the Rockets to 32% from the field, the Lakers could not keep the Rockets off of the boards, giving up 15 first half offensive rebounds.
Granted, the Rockets also shot 19% from three, which would offer them plenty of opportunities to collect their wayward shots for second chance points. But, they were getting multiple opportunities to make the Lakers work on even more on defense. They held James Harden to 1-10 shooting and Jeremy Lin to 1-5 in the first 24 minutes, but the Rockets bench picked up the slack. As the road strengthens team character, the home court often inspires bench players to produce.
Former Lakers first round pick Toney Douglas, a Knick under D’Antoni as well, provided all of the first half support Houston needed with 14 points. Carlos Delfino contributed 13 to make up for the starting backcourts ineffectiveness. The Lakers maintained the lead in the 3rd, but Houston chipped away, winning their first quarter of the game, 28-22. The momentum began to swing. The extra possessions wore on the Lakers as they arrived later and later on their rotations. Yet, the Lakers headed into the 4th quarter up by 10 and another shot at a .500 record.
As the starters rested, the Lakers bench could not keep up. Greg Smith took over for Omer Asik and poured in 13 of the Rockets 34 points in the 4th, including an offensive rebound and layup to complete the comeback and tie the game at 102. To the Rockets credit, they waited until 3:18 in the quarter to employ the Hack-A-Dwight, but they used it nonetheless. Howard missed his first two, and then spilt a pair on his next two trips to the line. The Rockets steadily closed the gap, even taking the lead for the first time in the game on a three by Douglas, 100-99.
Finally, in Shaq-like fashion, Dwight sank the free throws that mattered. He took back the lead at 102-100 with incredible form from fifteen feet; enough to warrant a fist pump from Chris Duhon. Dwight celebrated with a volleyball swat on a Delfino layup, but Smith corralled his 4th offensive board and cemented his trending status with the game-tying bucket.
Kobe missed a jumper. James Harden bricked from the field, but swished two of his 9-11 from the line with a minute left to take the lead for good. Kobe valiantly drove to the bucket, met by plenty of contact, but missed and Smith ended up at the line to ice the game. Kobe made it interesting by hitting the last 3 of his 39 points off of an out-of-bounds play with 13.3 seconds left. Toney Douglas left the door slightly cracked open by missing his second free throw for a two-point lead. Kobe took a clean three that grazed off of the rim into MWP’s hands. He tossed up a long, baseline fall away that was almost tipped in by Antawn, but the buzzer sounded. The collapse was complete. The Lakers dropped their second in a row, 107-105. Two straight games saw the Lakers celebrate the holiday season by giving away leads, letting Orlando score 40 and Houston 34 in the 4th quarter.
The legendary “Circus Trips” of the Bulls and the “Rodeo Road Trips” of the Spurs helped their respective teams develop into a cohesive unit. The players and coaches build a kinship while sharing planes, buses, rooms, meals, and even a night at the movies together. Sometimes, the teams come together to blow a 17-point lead on their very first night on the road. These moments aren’t lost on the drive home or in the comfort of one’s own home. They linger.
Luckily, this one will only linger until tomorrow night’s visit to New Orleans.
As the Lakers continue on the road for now 6 of the next 7 games, they really need to create some positive momentum, which they did rather successfully on Tuesday night for three quarters. Now they just have to figure out that pesky 4th quarter.