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  • Game info: 10:30 pm EDT Sat Apr 17, 2004
  • TV: ESPN
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PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round, Game 1.

The dominant season that was expected of the Los Angeles Lakers never materialized.

It doesn’t matter, though. This team was put together for what it could do in the postseason.

After a sometimes rocky regular season, the Lakers open the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.

Los Angeles knew it needed to surround Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with more talent after it was eliminated in the West semifinals last year, ending its quest for a fourth straight NBA title.

Karl Malone and Gary Payton, still in search of the first titles of their brilliant careers, were signed during the offseason, and the Lakers were expected to roll through the regular season.

But Bryant’s rape trial, numerous injuries, and Payton’s unhappiness with the offense were among the factors that kept Los Angeles from building the chemistry that a dominant team needs. The Lakers managed only the third-best record in the West, and won the Pacific Division and avoided the No. 4 seed only because the Sacramento Kings collapsed down the stretch.

Though their chemistry isn’t always there, the Lakers’ mystique is.

“We know they’re the best team in the league,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “We know what’s ahead of us.”

What’s ahead includes one of the NBA’s most dominant players in O’Neal, one of its most clutch ones in Bryant, and one of its best coaches in Phil Jackson, who is looking for a league-record 10th NBA title.

Houston matches up favorably in those areas. Yao Ming has had some good games against O’Neal, the backcourt of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley will make Bryant and Payton work on defense, and Van Gundy has coached in the NBA Finals with New York.

The Rockets and Lakers have split the last eight meetings, including the four-game series this season.

“We feel like we know Houston,” Jackson said. “We respect them as a team.

“We have individual matchups that are difficult—we know that. We know what to expect from them. Their personnel is young and talented. Everybody knows it’s not an easy matchup.”

The Rockets can’t match the Lakers in postseason experience. Houston hasn’t reached the playoffs since 1999, the year before Los Angeles won the first of its three straight titles.

Yao averaged 21.5 points against Los Angeles this season, but Houston may need him to be even better with both guards hurting. Mobley sat out the last two games with a bruised left shoulder, while Francis has dealt with shoulder and wrist injuries for much of the season and also didn’t play in the last two games.

Los Angeles also has injury problems. Malone and key reserves Derek Fisher and Devean George left the season finale with injuries, while starting forward Rick Fox missed the last three games with a dislocated thumb.

Malone’s ankle injury seemed serious, and his absence would be a huge blow to the Lakers’ title hopes. He missed a large chunk of the season because of a knee injury, and Los Angeles played some of its worst basketball without him.

The Lakers have the momentum entering the series after winning their final two games—the latter on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Bryant to beat Portland—to win the division. The Rockets lost seven of their final 10 games.

“Oh, we’re feeling great,” Jackson said. “We feel like we gained a little momentum going into the playoffs. We have to feel good about where we’re at.”

Game 2 is Monday night at Staples Center.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Rockets - 7th seed. Lakers - 2nd seed.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Rockets - F Kelvin Cato, F Jim Jackson, C Yao, G Francis, G Mobley. Lakers - F Malone or Stanislav Medvedenko, F Fox or Bryon Russell, C O’Neal, G Payton, G Bryant.

TEAM LEADERS: Rockets - Yao, 17.5 ppg and 9.0 rpg; Francis, 6.2 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 24.0 ppg; O’Neal, 11.5 rpg; Payton, 5.5 apg.

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2. Yao had games of 29 and 33 points, but averaged only 12 in the other two games. O’Neal averaged 23 points and shot 50.8 percent, while Bryant added 20.3 points but shot under 40 percent. Malone played only once against Houston. Each team won once on the road.

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