O'Neal helps lackluster Lakers defeat Rockets

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

LOS ANGELES The playoffs arrived and the Los Angeles Lakers hardly looked like championship material.

But Shaquille O'Neal was in the right place to bail them out barely in time.

O'Neal's only basket of the second half, a dunk off an airball by Kobe Bryant with 17.4 seconds remaining, provided the winning points in the Lakers' 72-71 victory over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

''That game was misery for us out there,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ''I don't know if it was their defense or our shooting or a combination of both. We struggled, in the second half, particularly.''

With the Rockets leading by one point and the shot clock running down, Bryant tried a 3-pointer despite having two defenders on him, and missed everything.

But O'Neal snatched the ball out of the air and rammed it into the basket while being fouled by Yao Ming, who committed his sixth personal.

''I just wanted to get it up quick and go strong,'' O'Neal said.

O'Neal missed the free throw his 10th failure in 14 attempts from the foul line and the Rockets got the rebound and called timeout. Steve Francis drove around two defenders but ran into O'Neal, forcing him to pass the ball to Jim Jackson in the corner.

Jackson's open 3-pointer hit the rim and bounced away as time ran out.

''Great look. When I let it go, I thought it was in,'' he said.

O'Neal scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half and also had 17 rebounds. Bryant took just one shot in the first half and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists, shooting 4-for-19 from the field.

''It was an ugly game but we fought our way through it,'' O'Neal said.

That's an understatement. The Lakers shot 25 percent in the second half (10-of-40) and 32.9 percent overall, and were outrebounded 51-41.

Game 2 will be played Monday night at Staples Center before the best-of-seven series moves to Houston for the third and fourth games.

Francis led the Rockets with 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Jackson and Maurice Taylor added 11 points each; Yao had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Cuttino Mobley also scored 10 for Houston, which shot 38.2 percent and committed 22 turnovers.

''We can win games shooting 30 percent, we can win games with Kobe taking one shot in the first half if you do things right,'' Lakers forward Rick Fox said. ''It was definitely not a pretty exhibition shooting-wise, but we defended.''

Derek Fisher and Kareem Rush made 3-pointers the first points of the game for both to give the Lakers a 58-55 lead, and Rush made another 3-pointer to make it 63-59.

Jackson scored the game's next five points to put the Rockets on top, but two free throws by Fisher and another pair by Bryant gave the Lakers a 67-64 lead.

A free throw by Francis and a jumper by Taylor tied it at 69, and after O'Neal missed two foul shots, Francis made a pair with 2:02 left to give the Rockets a two-point lead.

O'Neal's free throw with 1:30 left drew the Lakers within one, and there was no more scoring until his decisive dunk.

''They made one more play than we did tonight,'' Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

The Lakers entered with four players listed as questionable because of injuries, and all played Karl Malone despite a sprained right ankle, Fox with his dislocated right thumb taped; Fisher (strained groin muscle), and Devean George (strained left calf).

Malone played 38 minutes but had an off night, shooting 3-of-14 for seven points. He also had 11 rebounds.

Gary Payton hyperextended his lower back late in the first half after scoring 11 points. He returned to play the second half, going scoreless in 15 1/2 minutes.

Fox, who missed the last three regular-season games, was back in the starting lineup and went scoreless in 20 minutes.

Pacers 104, Celtics 88

INDIANAPOLIS Jermaine O'Neal had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Ron Artest added 24 points and stellar defense on Paul Pierce to lead Indiana past Boston in Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday.

Pierce scored 11 points in the first quarter, but Artest didn't let him get free for the rest of the game. Top-seeded Indiana broke the game open in the second quarter and led by as many as 31 points in an easy win.

It took a minor flare-up in the second quarter to get the Pacers going.

O'Neal scuffled with Celtics forward Brandon Hunter after Hunter pulled him down underneath the Pacers' basket. O'Neal got up and jawed with Hunter and Ricky Davis, drawing a technical foul. The confrontation ignited the Pacers, who responded with a 14-3 run to take control.

Nets 107, Knicks 83

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Jason Kidd took his anger out after being shoved to the court by a backup guard, and Jason Collins knocked Tim Thomas out of the game on a flagrant foul in the fourth quarter.

Kidd channeled his annoyance at being sent sprawling by Frank Williams into a 14-point, 13-assist performance.

Kerry Kittles hit his first six shots and scored 20 points as the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions shot nearly 60 percent in the first half and used their defense to put the game away in the second half, holding New York to 28 points.

The most physical moment of the game came midway through the fourth quarter when Thomas, driving to the basket, was hit hard across the body and in the face by Collins. Thomas landed on his lower back and rolled over in pain, then walked off with assistance and went to the locker room. He was to be hospitalized overnight.

Spurs 98, Grizzlies 74

SAN ANTONIO The San Antonio Spurs, giving the Grizzlies a harsh initiation to postseason play, got 26 points from Tim Duncan and took control.

The Spurs used their size advantage to produce easy inside baskets from Duncan and Robert Horry, while their relentless defense made Pau Gasol a non-factor while holding Memphis to its worst shooting percentage of the season.

Eighteen of San Antonio's first 25 points came in the paint, and they ended with 50 points inside.

The win was the 12th straight for the Spurs and their 14th straight at home, coming against a team that beat them three times during the regular season.

Memphis, which entered the league in 1995 as the Vancouver Grizzlies, never made the postseason or won more than 28 games in its first eight seasons.



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