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  • Game info: 9:30 pm EDT Fri Apr 23, 2004
  • TV: ESPN
Preview | Box Score | Recap | Series Breakdown

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Lakers lead 2-0.

Star players tend to thrive in the postseason.

Although that generally hasn’t been the case so far for the Los Angeles Lakers this postseason, they have still managed to win the first two games of their best-of-7 first-round series with the Houston Rockets.

The Lakers’ four future Hall of Famers have been in a funk.

Shaquille O’Neal has never been worse in the NBA playoffs, and Kobe Bryant didn’t even shoot this poorly in the postseason as an 18-year-old rookie. Karl Malone and Gary Payton aren’t doing so well, either.

Despite it all, Los Angeles appears to be in control of the series as it heads to Houston for Games 3 and 4.

O’Neal had his lowest-scoring effort in 140 career playoff games, finishing with seven points in Los Angeles’ 98-84 win over Houston in Game 2 on Monday.

Bryant is averaging 26 points, but is doing it on 33 percent shooting— fueling more criticism that he’s taking too many shots. Both Malone and Payton are shooting below 40 percent and have combined for an average of 20.5 points.

Los Angeles has been able to gain the edge in the series by the play of its reserves. Derek Fisher scored 11 points, Kareem Rush had 10 and Luke Walton added a key 3-pointer and numerous hustle plays Monday.

“Hopefully they can continue to have trust in me and hopefully I can continue to knock down shots,” Rush said. “If they continue to double (Shaq and Kobe), it’s our job to knock down shots.”

The Rockets will have to figure out a way to solve this predicament, or their first playoff appearance in five years should be a very short one. Phil Jackson-coached teams that win the first two games of a playoff series have a 20-8 record in the third game.

“There were a lot of blown coverages,” said Houston guard Steve Francis, coming off a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. “We need to try to correct all that.”

Houston’s typically suffocating defense—second in the NBA in field goal percentage (41.2) and fifth in scoring (88 points a game)—was beaten by timely contributions from Los Angeles backups.

“Rush, Fisher … a lot of guys hurt us,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “I’d rather stop all of them. It wasn’t us gameplanning and saying that was just a guy left open. We just didn’t play it right.”

Houston knows winning Game 3 guarantees nothing. The Rockets still have to win four of the next five games to advance to the next round.

“We have to … put as much pressure on them as they put on us,” Rockets forward Maurice Taylor said. “I think the team we’re playing is good enough that we can’t rely on home-court advantage. They’re too good for that.”

Houston has a few days to work out its problems, but all that extra rest might work to the benefit of Los Angeles, which has some players battling injuries.

Slava Medvedenko didn’t practice Wednesday with the Lakers because of a strained right Achilles’ tendon, and his status for Friday’s game is uncertain. Malone, Fisher, Rick Fox and Devean George also are receiving treatment for various injuries.

Game 4 is Sunday.

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

PROBABLE STARTERS: Lakers - F Rick Fox, F Malone, C O’Neal, G Bryant, G Payton. Rockets - F Jim Jackson, F Kelvin Cato, C Yao Ming, G Cuttino Mobley, G Francis.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 26 ppg; O’Neal, 12 rpg; Payton, 5.5 apg. Rockets - Francis, 18 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 8.5 apg.

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