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Wednesday January 4, 2012 4:08 AM

Bryant, Bynum Too Much For Rockets

Lakers pull away late, send Houston to 108-99 defeat

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




LOS ANGELES - Sometimes the game of basketball really is as simple as it seems.

Size, especially near superhuman size, matters. And so long as we’re dabbling in clichés, here’s another that seems both timely and applicable: this truly is a make-or-miss league.

Those maxims shone brightly beneath the Staples Center spotlight Tuesday night as the Los Angeles Lakers parlayed their significant size advantage with some timely shot-making to hold off Houston and emerge with a 108-99 victory.

The Rockets simply had no answer for either Andrew Bynum (21 points, 22 rebounds) or Kobe Bryant (37 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) and that duo’s dominance directly led to the Rockets’ demise. Then factor in the Lakers’ advantage in rebounding (53-38), field goal percentage (52.6 to 42.7%) and the disparity at the free throw line (LA shot 20 more freebies than did the Rockets), and one would be inclined to conclude that the Rockets had been run off the floor in blowout fashion. The conclusion, however, wouldn’t be anywhere close to correct.

Truth is, for all of Bynum’s beastly play and Bryant’s spectacular second-half shooting, Houston put itself in position to steal this game. With 3:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Rockets found themselves trailing by a mere four points. Kyle Lowry had just found Samuel Dalembert down low for an and-1 dunk, putting Houston well within range of pulling off the upset. The next two minutes, however, showcased just how fickle momentum can be and how razor-thin the line often is between victory and defeat.

Bryant began Los Angeles’ closing run by draining a tough 18-footer; one in a long line of significant degree of difficulty looks that the Rockets dared LA to take only to see the Lakers connect time and time again. Houston then responded with an executed-to-perfection set that saw Lowry find a wide-open Luis Scola for a jumper from the wing; a shot Scola seemingly drains in his sleep. Only this time it bounced off the back rim, leading to a Lakers’ run-out that ended with Bryant scoring once more, this time while drawing a foul on Kevin Martin.

With the Rockets now barely clinging to life, trailing by nine with 2:29 to go, their fate was finally sealed when Lowry – he of the near triple-double stat line featuring 22 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists – missed a four-foot floater in the lane that was then corralled by Dalembert; only, instead of seeing a wide-open Martin in the corner right away, the Rockets’ center paused, dribbled and then kicked out an errant pass in K-Mart’s direction that ultimately flew out of bounds. One more Bryant jumper later, the ballgame had been decided.

As Scola noted after the game, this is the Lakers we’re talking about – you expect them to take, and frequently make, tough shots, especially when playing at home. What’s more, there are destined to be days when you get exactly what you want at both ends of the floor come crunch time and the ball still won’t bounce your way; hence, the genesis of the make-or-miss aphorism. It happens. And when it does, you lick your wounds, learn from it and move on.

In fact, the educational aspects of a loss like this are probably more valuable than anything to the Rockets right now. Houston came into the season preaching improvement defensively and on the glass, and Tuesday’s contest serves as a stark reminder of precisely why the team deemed those two areas of paramount importance. The Rockets have shown glimpses that they're getting it, especially on the boards, but they're clearly not yet where they want to be. And though the season is still in its infancy, the compressed schedule has placed a premium on growing up fast.

Head Coach Kevin McHale said after the game that his club still hasn’t gotten to the point where trust has been fully established while playing team defense. With such a young team and a brand new coaching staff in place, that doesn't rank as a particularly surprising revelation. Developing confidence and attaining that “one team on a string” defensive mentality doesn’t arrive overnight which is why the Rockets are using every minute available to them in an effort to establish it. They'll even be back on the practice court Wednesday morning – a rarity on the second day of a back-to-back – to keep hammering home those points of emphasis until they stick.

After all, even though basketball might at times appear to be a simple game, it takes an enormous amount of work to make it look that way.

And 1s: Rockets guard Courtney Lee had to be helped off the floor in the second half after suffering a strained right calf following a routine play in the second half. Lee was unable to return after sustaining the injury, but was not yet ready to rule himself out for Wednesday’s contest against the Clippers.

“I have no idea what happened,” said Lee, who finished with 9 points and 5 rebounds during 17 minutes of action. “I went to the hole, was getting ready to run back and my leg just buckled. I went down. I didn’t feel anything at the time so I didn’t know what it was so I tried to get back up and run again and I couldn’t. It’s a strained calf. They said some people can come back within a day or two so it shouldn’t take that long.

“We’ll see how it feels tonight and tomorrow but the trainers said I might be able to go tomorrow.”

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

“We missed some shots and we had some defensive breakdowns. We tried to get more pace in the game and keep attacking them. Their bigs hurt us in the paint. They did what I was afraid was going to happen. Bynum had a heck of a game. They had a lot of post ups with Bynum, Gasol some, Kobe a lot, and they made plays.”

(on defending the Lakers big men): “We wanted to come down there and dig try to push them out of the paint and limit their touches down there. They made shots and got over us.”

(on shooting too many jump shots): “We have to get ourselves where we can drive and attack and finish in the paint a bit more. We right now can direct the ball through Luis on the post, but we have to find a way to direct the ball into the paint more.”

(on the end of the game): “We fought back a few times. Kobe hit a few turn around fadeaways and those are tough shots to defend. We tried to get him to come through some more traffic but they loaded up the weak side. All four guys are standing over there and we’re trying to get our guys to come over and be more aggressive. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re trusting everybody on our defense. It’s still a process.”

KYLE LOWRY

“Kobe made some tough shots at the end and in the fourth quarter and we had some defensive breakdowns that we needed to fix, and we missed some shots.”

(on defensive strategy against Gasol and Bynum): “You just have to box them out and get them out of the lane. They’re big and they were physical in the paint.”

(on trying to find offense against two bigs in Gasol and Bynum): “We shot a lot of jump shots tonight, but they’re shots we can live with. We got good shooters and we have guys that can make shots, but we just missed them. Even with their big men in there, we played them even, but in the fourth quarter, they made some tough shots.”

COURTNEY LEE

(on his injury): I have no idea what happened. I went to the hole, was getting ready to run back and my leg just buckled. I went down. I didn’t feel anything at the time so I didn’t know what it was so I tried to get back up and run again and I couldn’t. It’s a strained calf. They said some people can come back within a day or two so it shouldn’t take that long.

(definitely out for tomorrow?): I’m not sure. We’ll see how it feels tonight and tomorrow but the trainers said I might be able to go tomorrow.

“Their size --- they kept pounding it down low --- and we had a couple guys in foul trouble. They made shots and Gasol and Bynum played big down low.”

(on team’s defensive strategy to guard Gasol and Bynum): “We tried to get them out of the paint and as guards, we try to come down and help. But it’s really hard to plan for those guys.”

LUIS SCOLA

We played a close game the whole game and then towards the end they made some shots; good shots, tough shots, but we were kind of expecting those – this is Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol we’re talking about. Then we missed some shots that we usually make. It happened and that’s why here in the Staples Center it’s really difficult to win.

(on Bynum): “He’s big and athletic and looks like he’s very focused. He had a great game and grabbed a lot of rebounds.”

(on the Rockets’ different defensive looks):

“I think it worked --- we tried it and confused them a little bit. We were able to make shots and we were in the game all the way until the fourth quarter.”

LAKERS HEAD COACH MIKE BROWN

“I thought our second unit did a heck of a job for us. I think it was towards the end of the 3rd [quarter] beginning of the 4th [quarter] defensively they came out and they gave us energy in the second half because obviously it was nip and tuck throughout most of the game and then our second unit came in and I thought they brought us energy defensively.”

(on tonight’s defense): “Defensively, we have to make sure we play for forty-eight minutes. We didn’t quite do that tonight but we did it just enough to get a win. We’re going to score. We’re talented enough to score. We’re still finding out way offensively.”

(on Andrew Bynum’s conditioning): “He was very productive in the thirty-eight minutes he played. His conditioning is getting a little better and if he can ever get it to a point where it’s great…oh my gosh.”

KOBE BRYANT

(on comfort level when shooting): “At times I went back to my original shot and followed all the way through with the ball and I got some pain and the ball tended to go short. But all in all I feel pretty good.”

(on Andrew Bynum’s game so far this season): “We all know the amount of talent that he has and he’s really worked on it. The thing that I like about him is that he has an engine inside of him and he wants to do well, he wants to dominate. He has ambition to be great. I think that’s the biggest positive about him aside from all of the physical attributes.”

(on what affects his wrist): “The point of the release. You try to make every release the same but it just doesn’t work out that way. It depends. Sometimes I follow through and it just catches and other times it doesn’t. I just kind of have to figure out how to make it more consistent.”

(on what it’s going to take to get a win on the road): “Pace. Pace the game and try to dominate the momentum of the game.”

ANDREW BYNUM

“I think I’m getting a lot more touches so it’s easier to be confident. And before the practices every day I’m putting in work, so it’s paying off.”

(on their next game against the Trailblazers in Portland): “I think their home crowd just gives them a lot, a lot of energy, and they go out and they run up and down. They beat us in transitions every year, and that’s our biggest weakness, is transitions. I think we do well with them when they come here and we do poorly out there, but we need to change that around. So, we’re going to try and do it.”

PAU GASOL

(on Bynum): “It’s not just tonight but the way he’s played these three games. He’s been really aggressive and really decisive and just pursuing every ball pretty much. I’m glad to see him with this level of intensity and energy and desire because it takes desire and will.”

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