5:30 PM ET, December 25, 2003
STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, CA
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Just a couple weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared invincible.
Now, they look vulnerable.
The Shaq-Yao matchup was a push. Otherwise, the Houston Rockets were clearly superior to the Lakers, especially down the stretch, in winning a 99-87 decision Thursday night.
The loss was the fourth in six games for the suddenly slumping Lakers (20-7), who appeared dominant before that during a 10-game winning streak.
And the defeat was just their second in 16 home games.
"We're not a very good team right now," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We've just hit a slump in which we're not a very good basketball club. It's not about competing, it's about not being capable of competing because we're not good enough to compete right now."
They certainly weren't in the latter stages against the Rockets.
Yao Ming, who had 18 points and eight rebounds, committed his fifth foul and came out of the game with 9:26 remaining and the game tied at 77.
He watched the rest of the game from the bench as the Rockets outscored the Lakers 22-10.
"I would say most times we would go back to him," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We were doing a good job, so we just let it ride out."
Steve Francis had 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists to lead the Rockets (16-12), who snapped a two-game losing streak.
"It's cool -- this is as good as it gets," Francis said of winning a nationally televised game on Christmas night. "If this happens in April or May, I'll be even more excited.
"We developed the lead by playing hard and playing unselfish, and that's how we got it back."
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists. But he shot just 9-of-26, including 1-of-7 in the fourth quarter.
Shaquille O'Neal had 22 points and 10 rebounds, but didn't make a field goal in the second half, missing his four attempts. He was 5-of-12 overall.
"I think what hurt them is they didn't get the ball inside to Shaq enough," Francis said.
"I would agree," O'Neal said. "But we've got to play defense. It's not what teams are doing to us, it's what we're doing to ourselves."
Gary Payton added 13 points and seven assists for the Lakers, who shot a miserable 37.6 percent (32-of-85).
The Rockets shot 44.4 percent (36-of-81).
The Lakers played without Karl Malone, who missed his second game since spraining his right knee. Malone is expected to sit out at least one more -- against Boston on Sunday night -- before being re-evaluated.
"We got a call this morning saying he wasn't going to come even though I asked him to come yesterday," Phil Jackson said before the game. "It's an unexcused absence we'll talk about tomorrow.
"Some of it was the knee. He's still bothered by it. It's good for him to stay off it. We still want him to treat it. He'll miss one day."
Mobley's free throw with 9:08 left put Houston ahead for good. Consecutive 3-pointers by Mobley and Moochie Norris triggered a 10-1 run that made it 90-80 with a little under four minutes left, and the Lakers didn't pose a threat after that.
The Lakers shot 6-of-21 in the fourth quarter while being outscored 26-16.
"They made all the plays, they made all the big shots," Bryant said of the final period.
The Lakers scored the first 10 points of the third quarter to trim Houston's 57-44 halftime lead to three points.
Two free throws by O'Neal with 3:01 left in the period put the Lakers on top 68-67 -- their first lead of the game.
The Rockets led 73-71 entering the fourth quarter.
Houston led 35-19 early in the second quarter before Bryant made two baskets for his first points.
Yao scored six straight Houston points on a 20-foot jumper, a hook over O'Neal and a tip-in to give him 16 points and the Rockets a 54-40 lead. O'Neal also had 16 points at that stage.
A follow dunk by Francis as the second quarter ended gave the Rockets their 13-point halftime lead.
The Rockets shot 13-of-21 in taking a 33-19 lead into the second quarter. The Lakers were 8-of-23 at that stage and drew some boos from the sellout crowd of 18,997 as the period ended.
Security at the game was "heightened," according to Lakers spokesman John Black. "We're not going to discuss any specifics," he added. ... Malone has missed three games this season and 13 of a possible 1,471 during his 19-year career -- eight because of injury or illness and five due to suspension. ... Lakers F Rick Fox, who hasn't played since having surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left foot May 12, said he expects to return Jan. 9 against Atlanta. "Two weeks ago, I was still in that realm of uncertainty," he said. "Now, we're finding out the timetable that goes with this kind of injury."
Team Stat Comparison
|FGM-FGA||36-81 (.444)||32-85 (.376)|
|3PM-3PA||6-14 (.429)||3-11 (.273)|
|FTM-FTA||21-25 (.840)||20-30 (.667)|
|Fast Break Points||2||5|
|Fouls (Tech/Flagrant)||24 (0/0)||22 (2/0)|