So close and yet so far seems to be the refrain for the Rockets early this season against the good teams in the West. Much like last season when the Rocks went 9-23 against playoff bound Western Conference teams, they are out of the gate 0-3 against the best teams in the West after picking up a 98-97 overtime loss to the Lakers.
The Rockets and Lakers always play tough, exciting games early in the season. Last year on November 7, the Rockets picked up a big win at home against LA and won an even bigger victory at the polls with the arena referendum. Unfortunately, this year didn't provide a win, but it did provide plenty of excitement.
The stars were out in full force which was appropriate since this was a nationally televised game. The Rockets were paced by Cuttino Mobley, who returned from an ankle sprain, with 26 points and 7 boards while his running mate, Steve Francis had one of his ridiculously frequent monster games with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists.
The Lakers got a combined 61 from their stars, Kobe Bryant (31 points, 5 assits) and Shaquille O'Neal (30 points, 13 boards) which is not surprising considering they average 59 points per game.
Interestingly enough, Francis and Bryant are the only two players in the league averaging at least 20 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game.
The difference in this game was execution and easy baskets. Both teams played well but the Lakers made the big plays down the stretch and outscored the Rockets 14-2 on fast break points.
Both teams played close in the first half, though LA did have as much as a 10-point lead in the first quarter and led 47-39 at the half. The Lakers got a strong showing from Samaki Walker with 14 points on 7-9 shooting and 5 rebounds as well as Lindsay Hunter who played Francis about as well as you can play him and ended up with 7 steals.
The Rockets got some support for their stars from Kevin Willis who had 15 points and 8 boards but suffered from a case of butterfingers a few times. The normally surehanded Willis only had 3 turnovers but it seemed like he lost more than that. Kenny Thomas only had 9 points but he crashed the boards and ended the game with 14.
Things began to heat up in the third quarter when the Lakers took their largest lead of the game at 15. The Rockets went on a run to close to within only three by the end of the third 69-66.
The fourth quarter remained close throughout as the teams traded baskets. Though not many fouls were called in this game, Willis, who was having a great second half, was forced to sit with four fouls.
As the fourth wound down, Francis hit a circus shot plus the foul to pull the Rockets within three. Hunter missed two HUGE freethrows down the stretch and Cat hit a pair to tie the game up. The Lakers had a last shot but Shaq was stripped with 2 seconds left in regulation. Francis made a desperation heave from half court that got nothin' but...backboard. Overtime.
The Rockets fell down early by as much as 5 in the overtime after Hunter converted a steal into an easy layup. Despite LA's surge, the Rockets remained close and managed to get within one. Rick Fox, who had a great all around game (8 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) for LA, missed a three pointer and the Rockets caught some breaks.
With under 24 seconds left, the Rockets got the ball and the chance to win. Francis flew down the lane for a layup but Hunter stripped the ball out of bounds. On the inbounds play, Mobley tried to drive around Bryant knocking him down (both teams probably had reason to complain as the refs really let the teams play only whistling 36 fouls in the game) but instead of taking the short jumper, he tried to flip the ball to "Butterfingers" Willis.
Fox poked the ball away and by the time Willis got it back, he was trapped under the backboard. He heaved up a shot over the backboard but it was way off and Shaq managed to clear the rebound. Game over.
Houston showed a tremendous amount of heart to comeback like they did, but some questions were still left unanswered here like why Francis and Mobley logged 103 minutes while the entire bench managed ony 68???