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  • Game info: 3:30 pm EDT Sun Apr 25, 2004
  • TV: ABC
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PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Lakers lead 2-1.

After a regular season filled with on- and off-the-court turmoil, the Los Angeles Lakers are stirring things up again in the postseason.

With Shaquille O’Neal complaining about his amount of touches, the Lakers will try to rebound from their first playoff loss when they meet the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of their first-round series.

O’Neal, who remained quiet about his lack of shots—26 through Games 1 and 2—after the Lakers jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, was not as content to play a supporting role in Friday’s 102-91 loss at Houston in Game 3.

O’Neal scored a team-high 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, but went a dismal 5-of-14 at the line as the Lakers were unable to overcome a resilient Houston team focused on taking the All-Star center out of the mix.

The plan succeeded as O’Neal was virtually a non-factor in the second and third quarters, netting 11 of the Lakers’ first 13 points and scoring 10 in the fourth. Kobe Bryant hoisted a team-high 20 shots, but made just seven en route to 21 points as Los Angeles wilted down the stretch.

O’Neal was adamant about his need for the ball afterward.

“I’m proven like two plus two. I shouldn’t have to say anything. They should know,” O’Neal said. “We have to stick with what got us the lead. I got the ball and I was doing my thing, then I didn’t see it for a while. That’s been going on all year.”

Bryant, who ended an 11-day, self-imposed media boycott before Game 3, did not comment on O’Neal’s complaints following the loss. However, O’Neal isn’t the only disgruntled Laker coach Phil Jackson has to worry about.

Payton openly complained about being benched for the fourth quarter of Game 2, though he stayed fairly quiet on the matter after it happened again in Game 3.

“I don’t care. Whatever he (Jackson) wants to do. It’s on him,” Payton said.

Whether O’Neal’s comments rekindle his well-chronicled feud with Bryant, or spark the Lakers to get him the ball more frequently, Los Angeles is sure to be in for a much tougher series than it anticipated after sweeping a pair from Houston at Staples Center.

Re-energized by their home crowd, the Rockets got a stellar performance from Steve Francis in Game 3. The All-Star guard scored 27 points, including a pair of acrobatic baskets in crunch time, as Houston did not disappoint in its first home playoff game since 1999.

Coach Jeff Van Gundy knows his team has a long way to go against a playoff-proven Lakers team.

“We haven’t done anything. This is not about pounding our chests after one win,” said Van Gundy, who pulled away Francis and All-Star center Yao Ming as they were about to do a live television interview shortly after the game.

Houston definitely showed more confidence in its long-range shooting at home, hitting nine 3-pointers Friday after totaling just five in the first two games.

The Lakers do have history on their side. Los Angeles boasts a 32-1 mark in playoff series in which it has won the first two games.

The only question is whether they can avoid bickering among themselves long enough to eliminate the determined Rockets.

“Playoff basketball: Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down,” O’Neal said.

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

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

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 24.3 ppg; O’Neal, 11.7 rpg; Payton, 6.0 apg. Rockets - Francis, 21.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 8.0 apg.

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