HOUSTON – With the streak-mad Houston Rockets awaiting them just down the block and their own 7-foot center stretched out with an MRI tube across town, the Los Angeles Lakers gathered Saturday afternoon for a workout that nearly was as short as the truncated basketball court they met on.
Phil Jackson walked the Lakers through some sets, adjusted his rotation to account for Pau Gasol's absence and then wondered aloud why his team was practicing at a downtown athletic club on a court that appeared to measure a good 30 feet shy of the NBA's regulation hardwood. The Lakers, Jackson said, had hoped to work out on the Toyota Center practice floor but were told the Rockets were using it.
"They told us we couldn't have their gym until 4 o'clock," Jackson said, grinning. "They're finished? They lied to us. They really lied to us."
Jackson declined to mention that Houston provided the Lakers two alternative locations with full-length courts, one of which was only a five-minute ride from their downtown hotel. Of course, Jackson also used to splice photos of Houston coach Rick Adelman and Adolf Hitler in scouting video back when Adelman guided the Lakers' fierce rival Sacramento Kings.
That the Zen Master even deemed Houston an opponent worthy to prod signaled not only how much these Rockets have improved but also the weight of Sunday's meeting between the teams. The winner will leave with a tenuous hold on the Western Conference's No. 1 playoff seed.
"This will be a good test for us," Rockets guard Tracy McGrady said. "This is one of the better teams in the West, who everybody's thinking is going to win a championship. Let's see how good we really are."
The Rockets have won 21 consecutive games, the second-most in league history, but start their toughest stretch of the season Sunday. After the Boston Celtics visit Tuesday, Houston takes to the road to face the New Orleans Hornets, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.
Bryant credited the Rockets for their winning streak but said it "means nothing to me." McGrady isn't so sure.
"I know Kobe," McGrady said. "I know that's where his head is. In his head he's thinking, 'If it's going to end, it's going to end with me.' He's a fierce competitor. That's just who he is."
The Lakers have more concerns than the Rockets. They lost in New Orleans on Friday and still have to visit Dallas and Utah before returning home. They also likely will be without Gasol for the remainder of their trip.
Gasol injured his left ankle during Friday's first quarter in New Orleans. An MRI taken Saturday in Houston revealed a moderate sprain. He will be re-evaluated in a few days to determine a more definitive timetable for his return.
"At least we had a chance to practice without him," Jackson said. "Even though, as you can see, this 40-foot court wasn't quite like a normal court we could have possibly had to work out."