PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Lakers lead 1-0.
Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers can’t play any worse.
Or maybe the Houston Rockets are just better than anyone thought.
Though they escaped with a win in the series opener, the heavily favored Lakers are looking to put together a much better performance in Game 2 against the Rockets.
“It was an ugly game but we fought our way through it,” Shaquille O’Neal said after Los Angeles beat Houston 72-71 on Saturday night in Game 1.
“They made one more play than we did tonight,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy’s team, which allowed 88.1 points per game during the regular season to rank fifth in the league, did a tremendous job defensively in the opener and must maintain that level to have a chance at pulling off the upset in this series.
Bryant, who took only one shot in the first half, went 4-for-19 from the field and scored just 16 points. Karl Malone, hampered by an ankle injury, shot 3-of-14 for seven points. Gary Payton hyperextended his lower back late in the first half after scoring 11 points, then went scoreless in the second half.
O’Neal was held to four points after halftime, finishing with 20 points and 17 rebounds, and missed 10 of his 14 free-throw attempts. Los Angeles went 10-of-40 from the field in the second half, shot 32.9 percent overall and was outrebounded 51-41.
“That game was misery for us out there,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I don’t know if it was their defense or our shooting or a combination of both. We struggled, in the second half, particularly.”
One promising factor Los Angeles could take from the game is that the team appears to be relatively healthy.
Malone played 38 minutes, Payton’s back problem apparently was not severe, Rick Fox started despite a dislocated thumb, and reserves Derek Fisher and Devean George both played well off the bench despite having minor injuries.
Houston has no such injury concerns, though its offense did appear broken down on Saturday.
The Rockets were 2-of-12 from 3-point range, shot 38.2 percent from the floor, committed 22 turnovers and had just 13 assists on their 29 baskets.
Jackson, who became a bigger part of Houston’s offense as the season progressed, went 5-for-19 from the field for 11 points. Steve Francis had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists, but he and Mobley each committed seven turnovers.
The Rockets, making their first playoff appearance since 1999, will host Game 3 on Friday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Rockets - 7th seed. Lakers - 2nd seed.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Rockets - F Kelvin Cato, F Jackson, C Yao, G Francis, G Mobley. Lakers - F Malone, F Fox, C O’Neal, G Payton, G Bryant.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Rockets - Francis, 18 ppg and 5 apg; Jackson, 12 rpg. Lakers - O’Neal, 20 ppg and 17 rpg; Bryant, 6 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.