It boils down to this — the Lakers are not good enough right now for their stars to make mistakes and still win, while the Rockets were just good enough to exploit those mistakes.
For two games in a row the Lakers have taken leads deep into the fourth quarter. Then blown them as the other team hacked-a-Dwight and the Lakers fell apart. Los Angeles has given up 74 fourth quarter points in those two losses.
This time it was Houston making the plays late – and hitting their free throws and key threes — to get a 107-105 win. Houston improves to 9-8 on the season, the Lakers fall to 8-10 and 1-5 on the road. By the way, six of their next seven are on the road.
And after the last two games, you can bet every one of those teams is ready and willing to start fouling Dwight Howard late in the game.
It’s not hack-a-Dwight alone that costs the Lakers games, rather it is when teams start fouling Howard the entire Lakers rhythm on both ends of the floor becomes disrupted. They revert to choices on offense — Kobe Bryant took the last six shots alone, on his way to a 39-point performance — and even their defense falls apart.
This time that included Kobe missing key defensive assignments late as Tony Douglas was wide open for a corner three plus got to the line for key free throws.
The Lakers can’t have mistakes from their stars because the talent after Kobe and Howard the talent level takes a steep drop off a cliff with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol out. The Lakers bench got outscored 57-20 by the Rockets bench.
Still the Lakers should have won this. Los Angeles led from the start of this game and seemed in control — while they weren’t getting as many stops as Lakers fans might like the Lakers had a comfortable lead most of the way. Following a Jordan Hill dunk the Lakers were up 11 with just more than seven minutes left.
But the Rockets made a little run then went to hack-a-Dwight down four — 97-93 — with 3:18 on the clock. You can argue it didn’t work all that well because Howard hit 5-of-10 free throws before the clock reached two minutes (when hack-a-Dwight would mean free throw and the ball out of bounds for the Lakers). When hack-a-Dwight ended, the Lakers were still up two points.
But their rhythm was off, and it showed the rest of the way.
Greg Smith of Houston was the best player on the floor in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points on 4-of-4 shooting plus getting three rebounds. He finished with 21. Douglas had 22 for Houston. The Rockets got this win with James Harden (15 points), Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin combining to shoot 10-for-43. But Harden had a key offensive rebound and guys just found a way to contribute and make plays.
The Lakers don’t have that. Right now they don’t have enough down the stretch to win games unless their stars are perfect. And Howard is not perfect at all from the line.