HOUSTON (AP)—It was a happy homecoming for Los Angeles Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
The Lakers blew a 22-point lead they held in the third quarter, but still managed to give Tomjanovich a win over his former team.
“I’m very relieved,” Tomjanovich said. “This wasn’t an ideal situation. We’re just getting to know each other as a team. We’ve had other situations on the road where we needed to turn it up and we weren’t able to respond, and tonight we did.”
In an emotional pregame ceremony, Tomjanovich was honored for his 33 years of service to the Houston organization as a player, scout, assistant coach and head coach. He led the Rockets to NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.
Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson presented Tomjanovich with a portrait of the coach with his hands raised in celebration. At the bottom was Tomjanovich’s trademark motto: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
“I started thinking about all the things that have happened to me, and all the people that have been so good to me in my life,” Tomjanovich said. “It’s amazing. It’s like a fairy tale. Everything was good, even if we hadn’t won. But for the team, this was a big, big win. But we still have a lot of work to do before we are competitive.”
Tomjanovich had his new team way ahead early in the third quarter, despite a strong performance by Yao Ming who had 32 points and seven rebounds. Jim Jackson added 15 for the Rockets.
“He (Yao) is so big and they are so very well coached, our guys looked little beside him,” Tomjanovich said. “There are a lot of good things and there are some negatives, too. At least we didn’t foul at the end of the game in necessary situations.”
Kobe Bryant was only 2-for-7 in the first half but he scored the Lakers’ first nine points of the third quarter, and Los Angeles took a 59-37 lead with 8:13 left in the period for its biggest lead.
That’s when Yao and the Rockets used a 23-7 run to make it 66-60 heading into the fourth. Yao had 11 points in the quarter.
The Rockets kept the charge going on a string of three straight 3-point baskets that cut the Lakers’ lead to 75-73 with 7:21 to go. Charlie Ward’s 3-pointer with 5:30 left made it 76-75 and gave Houston its first lead since the first quarter.
The game was tied for the final time at 78-78 on a short turnaround jumper by Yao with 3:15 to play. Bryant’s free throw with 1:35 left put the Lakers ahead for good.
Bryant had 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Chucky Atkins finished with 10 points for Los Angeles.
“Looking at it from my eyes, any time a coach has done as much for a city as Rudy T has and the people embrace him like the people in Houston do, I’m happy we were able to get a win for him, because we knew it mean so much to him,” Atkins said.
The Lakers trailed only briefly in the first half despite 16 points by Yao in the first two quarters and took a 47-35 lead at intermission. Houston’s shooting kept the Rockets playing catch-up in the first half when they hit only 35 percent from the field.
Houston’s second-half charge did little to please Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy.
“Right now, we’re lacking in all-around competitive nature,” Van Gundy said. “We need to play harder from start to finish. Our guys need to understand what you have to put into it to get something out of it. Right now we’re sorely lacking.”
The Lakers played their fourth game in five nights. … The Rockets lead the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage. … The Lakers are 3-0 this season when holding opponents under 100 points. They are 0-4 when the opponent exceeds 100. … Tracy McGrady sat out his second straight game for the Rockets with a right hip strain and was replaced by Bostjan Nachbar in the starting lineup.