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Los Angeles nixes Rockets

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2004

LOS ANGELES Kobe Bryant looked exhausted before and after the game.

In between, he was brilliant.

After spending most of the last three days in a Colorado courtroom, Bryant had 31 points, six rebounds and 10 assists Wednesday night and the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 97-78 to win their first-round series 4-1.

''When I get on the basketball court, something just energizes me,'' Bryant said after leading the Lakers into the dream matchup of these playoffs against San Antonio.

''Eyes just getting heavy, getting real heavy, my eyelids were heavy today,'' Bryant said. ''In the car on the way over, I just felt so tired. I didn't want to go to sleep, I would have been sluggish. I just tried to meditate on the way over.''

Bryant said he was more tired than he'd ever been while playing a game and didn't plan to get off his couch on Thursday.

The Lakers put the Rockets away with a 33-7 run to finish the third quarter and start the fourth for an 82-59 lead. Bryant had 11 points and four assists during the spurt.

The Lakers and Spurs winners of the last five NBA championships meet in the second round starting Sunday in San Antonio.

The Spurs, who swept Memphis in the first round, bring a 15-game winning streak into the best-of-seven series including a 95-89 victory over the Lakers on April 4.

The Spurs eliminated Los Angeles in the second round last spring on their way to the championship, ending the Lakers' bid for a fourth straight title.

San Antonio swept the Lakers in the second round in 1999 en route to its first championship.

Karl Malone had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists, and Shaquille O'Neal added 12 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots for the Lakers.

''This is one of the best defensive games I've ever seen Shaquille play from start to finish,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

O'Neal didn't speak with reporters.

Slava Medvedenko also scored 12 points, showing no ill effects from his strained right Achilles' tendon.

Jim Jackson led Houston with 17 points. Steve Francis had 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists and Cuttino Mobley had 16 points for the Rockets all but two in the first quarter.

''We were originally floating and we slowly started sinking,'' Rockets center Yao Ming said through an interpreter after getting 10 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots.

''We basically gave it to them on a silver platter with the turnovers and not getting back on defense,'' Houston's Maurice Taylor said.

Looking worn, and surrounded by bodyguards, Bryant showed up at Staples Center 26 minutes before the opening tipoff following the third and final day of pretrial hearings in his sexual assault case in Eagle, Colo.

He had by far his best game of the postseason, shooting 12-of-21 along with 6 of 6 from the foul line while committing only one turnover in 41 minutes.

He shot 33.8 percent in the first four games of the series.

Bryant left with 6:16 remaining to a standing ovation and was warmly greeted when he reached the Lakers' bench.

''He really had an amazing game under pressure,'' teammate Kareem Rush said.

''A lot of people will remember 31 points, but I'll remember that he's been doing a lot of traveling in a short period of time,'' Malone said. ''You put that ball in his hand, and he's ready to play. And that's what it's all about.''

Bryant faced the same circumstance twice during the regular season. In December, he arrived during the first quarter against Denver and made a game-winning jumper as time expired. In March, he showed up an hour before the game and scored 36 points in a victory over Sacramento.

It took Bryant a few minutes to warm up as he missed his first three shots before making six in a row. He was 8-of-13 for 20 points at halftime.

O'Neal, playing with his sore right knee wrapped in a sleeve, had only four points and three rebounds in the first half, which ended with the Rockets on top 48-47.

But he sparked the Lakers by blocking three shots in the third quarter, one of which led to a layup by Bryant that snapped a 52-all tie and put the Lakers ahead for good.

Houston shot 2-of-16 while being outscored 25-9 in the decisive third quarter. The Lakers outscored the Rockets 50-30 in the second half.

The Rockets had the halftime lead despite committing 13 turnovers in the opening 24 minutes. They finished with 22 turnovers to 12 for the Lakers.

Notes: The NBA previously announced that the second round wouldn't start before next Monday, but amended those plans Wednesday. ... Lakers coach Phil Jackson is 14-0 in first-round playoff series 9-0 with Chicago and 5-0 with the Lakers. ... Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy is 5-2 in first-round playoff series. ... Bryant will formally enter a plea during a three-day hearing that starts May 10, leaving questions concerning his availability during the Lakers-Spurs series. ... Rockets F Clarence Weatherspoon sat out his third straight game because of a strained left calf. ... After getting fouled in the second quarter, Malone smiled and said something to actor Denzel Washington, sitting courtside. Washington smiled back.



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