This was a frustrating pill to swallow.
Three home games, all lost in the fourth quarter.
Only this time, the Rockets had a real beast to contend with in Kobe Bryant, who I swear allowed the ghost of Jimmy Chitwood to take over his body.
Bryant made his first 10 shots and 20 of his 26 attempts for a monstrous 45 points as the Lakers capitalized on some late boneheaded Rockets moves to pull out the 99-94 win over Houston in the Compaq Center.
The loss drops the Rockets to 13-12 -- they are 0-3 on this homestand.
Kobe was a man (err, boy) possessed, no doubt, but I have a hard time accepting this loss given the lack of intelligence the Rockets displayed down the stretch.
In a word: Cuttino Mobley.
Mobley, who was hard on himself after Tuesday's loss to the Spurs, can blame himself for this one -- and he won't be that far off. Cat was questionable for this game. He said his elbow still hurt him. He said he was hurting the team by playing so he wanted to redeem himself. He said he had a hard time putting up long shots.
So, why on God's green earth did the man find himself heaving up a forced three-pointer with plenty of time left on the clock (some 15 seconds) and the Rockets trailing by 3?
He airballed it. Kobe took it the other way for a vicious, crowd-taunting, fast break slam. Game Over.
Never mind Mobley was 5-13 from the field. That's not the point. It doesn't tell the story. It was the stupid, foolish decisions he and the Rockets (Rudy?) made down the stretch. Poor clock management killed 3 late opportunities for the Rockets, and it's the reason they lost this game.
That and single coverage on Kobe Bryant. Smartest decision Phil Jackson made was pulling Shaquille O'Neal (25 points, 12 boards, 6 assists) late (he was hitting 1-2 free throws every time when Rudy implemented "Hack-a-Shaq") and putting the ball in Kobe's hands.
Anyhow, it all killed a strong showing by whipping boy Maurice Taylor. Mo led the team in scoring (19) and rebounding (10), hitting 9-14 shot from the field. It was Taylor's long baseline jumper with 40 seconds left in the game that brought the Rockets within 1.
Hakeem Olajuwon also played well, scoring 16 points and grabbing 7 boards in 31 minutes.
Steve Francis (14 points, 8 boards, 5 assists) helped lead a third quarter 14-0 charge that gave the Rockets a 7-point lead, but like Mobley he struggled with his shot (4-14) and when he left late in the third to get his ankle re-taped, the Lakers climbed back to take the lead once again.
Walt Williams shot well, scoring 13 points and Moochie Norris had 8 of his 12 points in the fourth period.
The Lakers as a team (thanks to Kobe) shot 55% from the floor compared to the Rockets 48%.
Both teams came out early red hot -- Mo and Dream led the Rockets early on with 4 points each, but Kobe Bryant hit his first 5 shots for 11 points to help the Lakers take a 17-12 lead.
Kobe continued to not miss, but Mo Taylor scored on a drive and hit a jumper to cut the Laker lead to 25-22.
Bryant made 2 more free throws, but Mo Taylor hit an 18-footer with 0.2 seconds left to give us the score at the end of one: Lakers 28, Rockets 26.
Kobe had 18 of the Lakers 28 points -- he never missed from the field (7-7). The Lakers shot 67% in the period. Mo Taylor paced the Rockets with 10.
More of the same in the second: Mo scored early to tie it, but Kobe slammed in a Shaq miss (no one has put a damn body on up to this point) then he hit another jumper (9-9, 22 points) ... after Shaq and Rider each scored it was 36-30 Lakers.
Shaq scored quickly, but Cuttino Mobley got a goaltending call for two and then Shandon Anderson nailed a three and Phil Jack-zen was forced to call a TO, up 3 at 38-35.
From there, Shaq got going... around some Moochie miscues Shaq scored two buckets -- he Rockets missed 4 straight free throws and Kobe took a way-to-easy alleyoop (that's right, 10 for 10!) and the lead was 9 for LA.
Kobe finally missed a shot after getting blocked on a drive, but it didn't stop him from hitting a 16-foot turnaround to make it 48-38 Lakers.
But Mooch scored, then Francis hit a three and another jumper and the Rockets were within 3. Problem is Mobley was struggling hard on the floor with that elbow -- a series of bad passes, poor shots and missed free throws. Rockets could have cut it to 1 on a fast break but Cat foolishly threw it away.
However, Mobley a little later did take a fast break feed from Francis for a tough layup, and the Rockets capped off a 9-0 run and were within 1.
However, Isaiah Rider and Ron Harper scored buckets to close the half and at intermission the Lakers led 52-47.
The Lakers upped their lead to 57-50 early in the third, but the Rockets, behind Walt Williams, exploded out on a crowd-roaring 14-0 run to take a 64-57 lead with over 6 minutes to go in the third.
That's when Steve Francis headed to the locker room to have his ankle checked out. Hakeem scored 4 points, the last two on a 19-footer, but it was between two three-pointers by Rick Fox and the Lakers were within 68-65.
After Mobley tossed up a brick Shaq scored down low and it was 70-69 Rockets.
Robert Horry capped the scoring in the third, hitting 1-2 free throws, and the game was all knotted up at 74 heading in to the final frame.
The Rockets slide continued in the fourth... Horry hit a jumper, then blocked two Rockets shots leading to a Kobe jumper and the Lakers led 78-74.
Moochie and Mobley each responded with driving shots to tie the game, but Shaq (layup) and Kobe (fast break alleyoop, giving him 36 points) boosted the LA lead back to 4.
Moochie Norris scored 6 more points, tying the game at 85, but Rider hit a long two then Shaq two free throws and up to 4 once again for LA.
Mobley countered though with a top of the key three, and after a Rider miss, Mo Taylor drove on Shaquille O'Neal for a deuce and the Rockets reclaimed the lead 90-89 with just over 4 minutes left.
Shaq tied the game with 1-2 free throws with 3:19 left.
Poor clock management killed the Rockets -- a 24-second violation to start, then "Hack-a-Shaq" began. He made 1-2 to give them the lead, then the Rockets again committed an offensive foul (Moochie) due to the shot clock running out.
The Rockets again fouled Shaq immediately -- he made 1-2. Lakers 92, Rockets 90, 2:20 left.
Cuttino Mobley missed a drive, and Kobe Bryant made them pay with a 12-foot jumper. 94-90 Lakers with 1:35 to go.
The Rockets again milked the whole damn clock and Cuttino Mobley heaved a brick fadeaway from 21-feet that missed... but Hakeem came flying in baseline to tip it in. The Rockets then played solid defense, but a horrendous call by the officials put Shaq at the line after a miss with 52 seconds left.
He made 1-2. Lakers 95, Rockets 92.
Mo Taylor nailed an 18-foot baseline jumper with 40 seconds left, but Kobe burned Mobley for a 19-foot dead center jumper, and when Cuttino threw up an airball three, Kobe took off for a fast break dunk, giving him 45 points and a Laker victory.