WHO: Rockets 107, Lakers 104
WHAT: In one of their most thrilling wins of the season, the Rockets overcame a horrific start (the Lakers held a 40-25 lead after the first quarter) to stun the Lakers with a furious late rally, thanks to the play of Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee offensively and Chandler Parsons defensively. More on them later. For now, the Rockets improved to 25-22 overall; however, the win did not help much in the standings. They’re still 8th in the West and still only a half-game above a lurker, except this time it’s Utah instead of Phoenix. Houston is a half-game ahead of the Jazz, 1 1/2 ahead of the Suns and 2 ahead of Minnesota with 19 games remaining.
WHAT HAPPENED?: What do we know so far? We know that the Rockets won’t die, and we also know that they have developed a poor habit of playing up or down to their competition. It’s why they own wins over the likes of the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs, yet also boast losses to Cleveland, Minnesota and Toronto. You never know which team you’ll see on any given night, but we saw a powerful bunch Tuesday, as Houston overcame a 17-point first-half deficit and a 12-point deficit with 6:40 remaining to pull off a beauty. Dragic was the story of this game, with 16 points and 13 assists and the back-breaking corner 3 that broke a 101-all tie with 28 seconds left. In a game that had its share of Kobe Bryant heroics following a 17-2 late run that put Houston ahead 100-97 with two minutes left, Dragic was the star. Over the long haul, however, it was also a steady dose of Courtney Lee (23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) and Chandler Parsons (13 points, 7 rebounds), both of whom combined to hit 6 of 12 from deep, but also were masterful guarding Bryant, who missed 17 of his 27 shots, mostly against second-round draft pick Parsons, who gritted it out defensively and did a brilliant job using his length and two-inch advantage over Bryant. To be honest, the Rockets were true beneficiaries of the ejection of Andrew Bynum (16 points, 7 rebounds) with 1:10 left in the third quarter. But, too, Houston was without its starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. Still, let’s keep this on the hush: The Rockets are a much better team with Dragic/Lee in the lineup instead of Lowry/Martin.
CLUTCH CITY?: Through this season, the Rockets have been on the inexperienced side with no true go-to force in crunch time. So the following may surprise you: Houston is 8-3 in games decided by four points or less this year. However, the Rockets won for only the third time in 21 games when trailing after the third quarter. I’m telling you, it’s a weird, weird season.
FINALLY FREE?: We’ve addressed the Rockets’ free-throw line woes – in regard to actually getting there – here before. They are in the bottom three in the league in free-throw attempts. But a big key in Tuesday’s game was Houston outshooting the bigger, taller, stronger Lakers at the line, taking 27 attempts to L.A.’s 16. Which proves my earlier point last week that free throws are absolutely crucial and often the difference between winning and losing close games. The more the Rockets can keep attacking and stop settling for jump shots (like Luis Scola, for example, who shot four more free throws (6) than his season average), the better the Rockets are off.
ROCKETS’ DIAPER DANDIES UPDATE: Neither Marcus Morris or Greg Smith played Tuesday, though both were on the active list and dressed.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?: When a friend who was betting on this game asked me who should win, I simply had no answer. For one, the Lakers are clearly more talented. However, Houston is a tough, tough team to beat at home (17-6). Then again, the Rockets have dropped some clunkers, really embarrassing losses. But, they’ve also beaten some elite teams, and made it look easy too. So who knows? Who knows what this means? I think Bynum’s absence in the fourth quarter was crucial. If Bynum’s in, I don’t see Houston winning. After all, the Rockets outrebounded L.A. 15-7 in the fourth and outscored it 34-25, overcoming a six-point deficit to begin the third quarter. Bynum’s ejection obviously turned the tide, but the bottom line is the Rockets made plays late and the Lakers didn’t. So they certainly deserve credit for that. In the end, any win is good, of course, because the battle for the 8th spot is looking epic. The Rockets have three more games left on this four-game homestand (against Golden State Thursday, Dallas Saturday and Sacramento Monday). It’s a chance to hopefully gain some more breathing room. Also keep in mind that eventually Lowry and Martin are expected to return, which means changing the dynamic of the starting lineup and readjusting back on the fly in what will be an absolutely critical point of the season. Wins, wins, wins. It doesn’t matter how Houston gets them, as long as it gets them.