LOS ANGELES, April 17 (Ticker) -- The Houston Rockets had the Los Angeles Lakers right where they wanted them until Shaquille O'Neal overpowered Yao Ming.

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O'Neal's follow dunk over Yao with 17 seconds left allowed the Lakers to escape with a 72-71 victory over the Rockets, who squandered an opportunity to tilt the Western Conference first-round series in their favor.

The matchup between the second-seeded Lakers and seventh-seeded Rockets was billed as a showdown between O'Neal and Yao, who had battled on relatively even terms over the last two seasons.

Their first postseason matchup was more of the same. Yao had just 10 points and 11 rebounds but did not allow O'Neal to dominate, limiting him to 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting.

The Lakers and Rockets both struggled offensively in Game 1.
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Digging in with defense, the Rockets were clinging to a 71-70 lead as they trapped Kobe Bryant above the 3-point arc with the shot clock running down. Bryant, who made just 4-of-19 shots, fired an airball.

Under the basket, the 7-1, 340-pound O'Neal bodied the 7-5, 300-pound Yao out of the way, grabbed the miss and powered in a dunk that drew Yao's sixth foul, bringing a roar from the Staples Center crowd.

O'Neal missed the free throw, going just 4-of-14 from the line and giving the Rockets a chance to win. After a series of timeouts, Rockets All-Star guard Steve Francis penetrated and found Jim Jackson wide open in the left corner.

But Jackson, who had made a 3-pointer from the same spot earlier in the period, missed this time. O'Neal corralled his 17th rebound as time expired.

The Rockets did everything they could to win. They never let the home team get comfortable, limited the Lakers to 33 percent (25-of-76) from the field and held a 51-41 advantage on the boards

Playing its first postseason game in five years, Houston hurt itself with sloppy play, shooting 38 percent (29-of-76) and committing 22 turnovers, including seven each by Francis and backcourt mate Cuttino Mobley.

"It was pretty sloppy. It was a well contested game," said Bryant, who scored 16 points. "In the playoffs, it doesn't matter how pretty or how ugly it is as long as you win."

Game 2 is Monday at Los Angeles.