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Rockets’ Flex Defense Beats Up Lakers, 88-83

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Perhaps the Lakers’ problem Sunday was that they were not sure which sport was being played. Basketball may be their specialty, but the Lakers apparently felt they had to be more versatile than Bo Jackson and as strong as Dolph Lundgren to have any hope of beating the Houston Rockets.

Groping for analogies after absorbing an 88-83 loss to the Rockets before 16,611 at the Summit and a national television audience, the Lakers made references to everything from football to tag-team wrestling to the forgotten art of disco dancing.

“It was like arm-wrestling out there,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said.

Said Mychal Thompson: “Going to the basket was like trying to drive through the Houston Oilers’ defensive line.”

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Added James Worthy: “They were doing the bump-and-grind on us.”

All the Rockets really did was get physical with the Lakers, who uncharacteristically recoiled, rather than responded, to strong-arm tactics that they have not seen recently while running past Pacific Division teams.

Maybe the Lakers could have used Lundgren, the noted body-builder and purported actor in such films as “Masters of the Universe,” in attendance Sunday while in town to shoot a movie.

“We better get used to that style of play we saw today,” Riley said. “Their tactics were more physical. They were committed to not letting let post up. They did a great job stopping Earvin (Magic Johnson) and keeping James in control. And, anything we took to the basket they contested.”

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As a result, the Lakers had 16 fewer rebounds than the Rockets, made just 45% of their shots and saw their four-game winning streak stopped by a team that carried a seven-game losing streak.

This, obviously, was not the manner in which the Lakers wanted to open a five-game southeastern trip. With their stated goal being the best record in the National Basketball Assn., the Lakers (39-18) had a chance to pull within three games of Cleveland, which lost at home to Milwaukee Sunday.

Instead, the Lakers were pounded by the Rockets, although they could not have been too surprised by Houston’s physical tactics. Maybe it was simply the degree of force inflicted that caught the Lakers unaware.

Houston’s burly inside combination of Akeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe dominated Laker forward A.C. Green and the center combination of Thompson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Olajuwon had 22 points and 17 rebounds, Thorpe 12 points and 14 rebounds. And the Rockets, who made just 38% of their shots, had a 23-8 offensive rebound advantage.

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Defensively, the Rockets shut off the middle, forced the Lakers to take perimeter shots and were so dominant on the boards that the Lakers got few second shots.

Also, as several Laker players noted, the Lakers attempted only 15 free throws. Riley said it was because the Lakers did not drive to the basket enough, but Thompson, for one, placed blame elsewhere.

“It can be frustrating at times,” said Thompson, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. “You don’t mind it being a physical game when the refs call it. I never blame anyone--we lost the game--but we’d like to see the calls both ways.”

To the Lakers’ thinking, the most important non-call came with eight seconds left and the Rockets holding an 86-83 lead.

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The play actually began with 14 seconds left. Michael Cooper, at mid-court, inbounded the ball to Johnson on the right perimeter. Johnson, just outside the three-point line, dribbled toward the top of the key.

He then handed off to Byron Scott, who joined him just beyond the three-point line. Mike Woodson, guarding Scott, slipped through Johnson’s screen and made contact with Scott, who stumbled and dribbled the ball off his leg and out of bounds.

No foul was called, and a second later, Sleepy Floyd (22 points) sank two free throws to make it 88-83.

“I got fouled, simple as that,” said Scott, who scored only five of his 14 points in the second half. “I was coming around the pick and Mike Woodson kneed me in the thigh. I couldn’t believe it. There was no foul. It went from three (points) to five with that. I felt I would’ve had a good shot at (a three-point attempt).”

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The Lakers would not have found themselves in such a dire circumstance had they maintained their dominating start. They had a 10-1 lead 4:25 into the game before Houston made its first field goal, led by 11 points after the first quarter and by nine points at halftime.

Maybe Rocket Coach Don Chaney brought in Lundgren for halftime pointers because they overpowered the Lakers after that.

The Lakers’ 37-point output in the second half was their third lowest total in a half all season. They saw a nine-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit during a 29-13 run by the Rockets, the Lakers pulling to within four points entering the fourth quarter thanks to Cooper’s three-pointer.

Twice early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers missed chances to catch the Rockets. First, they were called for a 24-second clock violation, then Orlando Woolridge turned the ball over.

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With about a minute remaining, the Rockets had an 84-81 lead but missed two shots underneath. The ball was loose near the free-throw line, but Johnson reached out and slapped it to a streaking Cooper for a basket that made it a one-point deficit with 54 seconds left.

Again, the Rockets’ inside dominance prevented the Lakers from overcoming the deficit. Thorpe and Walter Berry eached missed shots, but the ball eventually bounced to Floyd, who sank a jump shot to make it 86-83 with 14 seconds left.

Laker Notes

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell tour resumed Sunday, as the Houston Rockets honored the retiring Laker center by presenting him with NASA memorabilia and a lap-top computer. Rocket General Manager Ray Patterson, who drafted Abdul-Jabbar in a similar position with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, took part in the ceremony. Abdul-Jabbar told the crowd that he has enjoyed playing in the city since his first game with UCLA in 1967. “We’ve had a great rivalry ever since (the 1960s), and I’d like to acknowledge the fans,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Back in 1986, we played the Rockets and got our butts kicked here (in Game 6 of the playoffs). We went to the airport, and usually we’d be greeted with contempt. But I didn’t hear one snicker or joke from the fans that night. A lot of fans could learn from you guys.” . . . Orlando Woolridge, poked in the right eye Friday night against Golden State, was examined by a Houston doctor. Woolridge was given medication for the problem. . . . The Lakers play at Atlanta Tuesday night.

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