At first it was the Blazers game. Then the Heat game.
Now the "Laker game" takes the place of them all as the Rockets got their biggest win of the year, riding emotion late to an 89-83 victory over LA in the Compaq Center.
It snaps the Rockets 3-game slide and ups their record to 17-27.
Kelvin Cato and Cuttino Mobley fueled a 13-5 closing run that put the Lakers away and gave the Rockets the big win.
Mobley finished with 15 points on 5-8 from the floor, but no shot was bigger than his game-clinching 20-footer with 19 seconds to go that put Houston up 5 and got him mobbed by his teammates.
Cato, playing just 20 minutes and with a painful sore wrist, delivered some inspired basketball late, blocking straight up Shaquille O'Neal on two plays, and hammering home dunks and knocking down free throws (OK, he made 2-4). He was Mobley's principal target on passes late. He was huge.
Everyone came together in this game. Every player did something to help the team to the win... even Matt Bullard, who managed to hit just 3-13 shots.
Steve Francis had a fantastic first half, scoring 15 points and was responsible for two higlights you'll be seeing for a long time. He finished with just 17 however after struggling in the second half then being plagued by foul trouble.
In his place came Bryce Drew who, as it has been well publicized at clutchcity.net, is struggling. Not today though. Drew hit 5-11 shots, scored 10 points, grabbed 4 boards and dished 3 assists in his first significant PT (22 minutes) in a while.
Walt Williams knocked down a huge three late to break a tie and give the Rockets a lead they wouldn't give up. He finished with 14 points on 3-6 shooting and 6-8 from the line.
The Dream, Hakeem Olajuwon, knocked down 10 points and grabbed 8 boards.
And the unsung hero: Shandon Anderson. His numbers in the box score don't tell the story (2-3, 5 points, 2 boards), but he was all over Kobe Bryant like a wet suit, holding the starting All-Star to 6-22 shooting.
In fact, the Rockets held the Laker duo of Kobe Glen Rice to 7-29 shooting and 24 points total. The Rockets defense did the job, holding the entire Lakers team to 36%.
We went a little nuts on the play by play breakdown, but strap yourself in and here we go:
You could tell right from the get-go that Kobe Bryant wanted to come out playing "hawking, in your face" defense on Francis.
Francis did not wilt. He nailed a 3 to open the scoring, then drained a pair of free throws, then a long jumper just inside three-point range and the Rockets led 7-0 in a heartbeat. In between there was a sweet block by Matt Bullard on Glen Rice.
Yes, Bullard with the block.
Shaq scored 5 quick points, but after a Shandon three and then a gorgeous crossover move by Francis on a coast to coast drive, the score was 12-5 Rockets.
Dream had a killer "DreamShake" move on Shaq that put the lead at 14-5 and after a Bullard three off a feed by Francis, the Rockets led 19-9.
After Francis forced a double on a drive and made a killer dish to Dream for a nasty slam, the Rockets had a 23-15 lead. Francis picked up his second foul with 3 seconds left in the quarter and left with 11 points and a pair of assists. The Rockets led 25-16 after one.
Oh man the block Cato had on Kobe early in the second.... made your knees weak. After a Mobley isolation reverse layup then another layup off some nice passing on a fast break, the Rockets led 29-19.
Drew missed two tough shots, but after Mobley hit a three it was 32-21. Steve Francis returned to the game for the first time since the end of the first quarter with 6:02 left in the second. Brian Shaw hit a long jumper and the lead was cut to 35-27 Rockets.
What is it about Rick Fox (11 points, 4-5 shooting, 3-3 from long range) that kills us? The man took two threes at this point and hit both of them - the second bringing the Lakers within 5 at 35-30. After a Fox to Kobe jaw-dropping alleyoop, it was 35-32.
Then came "The Dunk". Mobley, from the "Compaq Center" words on the floor, threw the oop pass to Francis who soared for the nasty slam to bring down the house. You could tell Kobe took it personally. He immediately went right at Olajuwon for a big dunk but Hakeem stopped him, only to be called for a foul.
NBC had a mic on Rudy T and drew a big laugh from the announcers when yelling at the ref for a "3-second" call because Shaq is "paying taxes" on his location in the paint.
As impressive as "The Dunk" was, then came "The Move". Steve Francis made Brian Shaw look flat out silly, right in front of Rudy T, with an amazing crossover, then double pumped past Robert Horry for a phenomenal highlight bucket. Any channel that passes on showing this clip should have its NBA licensing rights revoked.
Bullard missed a three at the buzzer before halftime, and the Rockets led just 42-39 at the break. In a way it was a shame, because the Rockets dominated the Lakers, yet led by just 3.
Walt started the third with a three and a pair of free throws to give the Rockets a 47-39 lead, but Ron Harper scored 4 straight, then Shaq got 5 in a row and without blinking an eye, the Lakers led 48-47.
Bullard missed the baseline 20-footer and a Shaq hammer dunk increased the Laker run to 11-0 and the Rockets trailed 50-47.
Two free throws by Rice and a jumper by Kobe - boom, the run is 15-0 for the Lakers. Bryce Drew ended the run with a driving shot, Shaq hit a baby hook then Drew actually faked out Kobe and blew by him baseline for a layup. It was 56-53 Lakers after a Walt jumper.
Drew then cut the lead to 1 with another driving one-handed soft jumper (one of those classic Drew shots), and the deficit was 1 point. An 18 foot jump shot by Olajuwon in transition gave the Rockets an 8-0 run and the lead again: 57-56.
Bullard snapped out of some cold shooting with a driving left-handed layin, then a three that tied the game, but Kobe picked up a three-point play with 6 seconds remaining. Cato knocked down a pair of free throws though, and through three, the Lakers led 66-65.
Credit Rudy T.
Francis, even though he was had an awesome first half, was pulled by Rudy early in the second for Drew. Why? Francis started to struggle. He missed his first 3 shots and may have been getting too into his one-on-one matchup with Kobe, who in all honesty started to defend Francis very well early in the third. Though the Lakers ran off 15 straight, Drew helped get the Rockets back into the game.
Francis picked up his 5th foul early (a flop by Derek Fisher, but Francis dropped his shoulder which will get the offensive call every time), and Drew came back in, immediately getting a layup on a steal and fast break. After a Cuttino three (when it went in, Rudy exclaimed, "KAPAYAAA!!!" - don't ask me what that is), the Rockets led 72-68. Cuttino then drove to the hoop and drew Shaq off Cato, then found Kelvin for a "Wham Bam Thank you M'aam, Funk Delight" two handed hammer, but a Delay of Game technical cut it to 74-71.
Drew hit a baseline jumper, but Shaq responded with a hook and Rick Fox nailed a jumper to cut the Rocket lead to 1, 76-75, with 7:28 to go.
Rick Fox then hit another huge three, and the Lakers led by 2. Francis came back in the game with 6:36 to go in the game, and after a huge block by Cato on Shaq, Francis drove and made an acrobatic layup over Shaq. However, they called another Delay of Game technical that put Glen Rice at the line (who tied the game at 79).
Shaq went for a dunk and Cato rejected him with 3:30 to go, then Walt Williams nailed a three to give Houston an 82-79 lead. Then Cato drew a charge on Shaq, and on the other end got fouled going for a dunk. Kelvin made 1-2 at the line - 83-79 Rockets.
Kobe missed twice, Cuttino grabbed the board then slowed it up for an iso. He then drove and found his favorite target (who else?) Cato for a rim-rattling slam over Kobe. Shaq slammed home a miss, then Cato got fouled on a rebound, and again made 1-2 at the line. Rockets 86, Lakers 81.
Shaq slammed home an easy one, then Bullard missed a three. The Lakers set up in their offensive set, down three with 48 seconds to go ... but Cuttino picked the ball, bringing the crowd to its feet. He slowed it up, milked the clock, and as he pulled it up I started to choke on my pre-Super Bowl snacks ...
... but he calmly nailed a 20-foot jumper, right in Ron Harper's face, with 19 seconds to go. Standing ovation and the Rockets, led by Francis, just mobbed Mobley.
For a young, improving team like the Rockets, it was a tremendous moment.