Lakers-Rockets Preview

The Associated Press

If this season hasn't already been trying enough, the Los Angeles Lakers suffered another big blow entering this week.

The slumping Lakers won't have frontcourt players Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill for a difficult two-game road trip that begins Tuesday night against the Houston Rockets, who will seek a season high-tying fifth straight win.

Los Angeles entered this season as one of the favorites for the franchise's third title in five seasons, but the Lakers (15-18) and their new players have never seemed to click. The team got to .500 after a five-game win streak last month but is 1-4 in its last five and is one shy of tying its season-high four-game skid from Dec. 7-13.

Los Angeles' chances of ending that losing streak don't appear promising with its recent injuries.

Howard, a six-time All-Star acquired from Orlando in the offseason, tore the labrum in his right shoulder Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers and re-aggravated it while matching a career high with 26 rebounds in a 112-105 loss to Denver on Sunday. He's expected to sit out a week before being re-evaluated.

Gasol, a four-time All-Star, suffered a concussion when he took an elbow in the face during Sunday's loss, and his backup, Hill, has an injured right hip. Both players are out indefinitely.

The Lakers will likely bring up 7-footer Robert Sacre, the last player taken in this year's draft, from the D-League to start at center. Metta World Peace, who is 6-7, might also be used at that spot.

With that patchwork frontcourt, Los Angeles will have to face the Rockets (20-14) and Southwest Division-leading San Antonio in back-to-back road games. It's unknown if the Lakers will have those players back for a four-game homestand that starts against Oklahoma City on Friday and ends against Miami on Jan. 17.

"The NBA is unforgiving, and nobody is feeling sorry for us," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "There's 29 other teams that are happy, and we've got to do the best we can do."

The Rockets will try to take advantage of the short-handed Lakers to match their five-game win streak from Dec. 17-26. Houston will also seek its seventh win in eight home games and its fourth in a row at the Toyota Center against Los Angeles.

"They're still a great team no matter what their record is," said James Harden, who is among the NBA leaders with 26.4 points per game. "It's going to be a tough matchup for us."

The Rockets, winners in three of four overall in the series, rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 107-105 home win over the Lakers on Dec. 4 despite Harden missing 16 of 19 shots.

Harden finished with 15 in that victory but has topped 20 in each of the 16 ensuing games and has 25 or more in 12 consecutive contests, one shy of tying Moses Malone's team record from Dec. 26-Feb. 23, 1982. He had 29 points in a 112-104 win over Cleveland on Saturday, including 16 in the final quarter and the game's final six points.

The Rockets, among the NBA's highest scoring teams with 106.2 points per game, have averaged 113.5 during their win streak.

Harden has topped 20 points only once in 23 career matchups with the Lakers, including two postseason series, and had 20 in a 119-108 road loss Nov. 18. Howard had 28 points and 13 rebounds for Los Angeles, and Kobe Bryant had 22 points and a season-high 11 assists.

Bryant has scored at least 27 points in 17 games since the beginning of December and had 39 in the loss in Houston.

Lakers point guard Steve Nash is five assists shy of becoming the fifth player with 10,000.

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