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Lakers Look Lost, but in the End Find a Way to Escape

As ceremonial first pitches go, this was a knuckleball in the dirt.

As ribbon-cuttings go, it was three hours of rusty scissors.

The Lakers welcomed their fans to the 2004 NBA playoffs Saturday with a win, and a warning.

Don’t get too comfortable.

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By the clank of a Jim Jackson missed three-point attempt in the final gasp of the postseason opener, the Lakers escaped the Houston Rockets by a single point while making another point.

The expiration date on this dream season may be closer than you think.

“I was definitely holding my breath,” Derek Fisher said.

While the rest of his team turned blue.

The final score was 72-71, with the Lakers’ winning shot coming on an ... airball?

Yep, Kobe Bryant threw up an airball that Shaquille O’Neal grabbed and dunked with 17.4 seconds remaining.

On the other end of the court, Jackson then missed a wide-open three-pointer at the buzzer, the ball bouncing off the rim while leaving the Lakers to ponder several other statistical clangs.

They barely won their first playoff home game against a team that committed 20 turnovers and shot 12 fewer free throws.

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The four potential Hall of Fame players opened their coronation blitz by scoring exactly one more point than the club record for fewest points in a playoff game -- 71, set in 1995.

One of the best second-half playoff teams in history scored nine points in the third quarter. Wasn’t there a game when these playoff Lakers could score nine points in one possession?

“I don’t know what solace we can take other than we have a ‘W’ behind one of our games instead of an ‘L,’ ” Coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “That game was misery for us out there.”

It was a misery that was undoubtedly loved by the Lakers’ NBA company, namely the San Antonio Spurs.

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You see, while the Rockets should have won this game, the Spurs would have won this game.

And while the Lakers should survive against the Rockets, can anyone now make the same promise about the next round in San Antonio?

As of now, nobody is thinking that far ahead.

“This is why I don’t read or listen to sports people talk about these things, because [the Rockets] are a team that’s been laying in the weeds,” Karl Malone said. “I’ve been around too long to recognize a setup. We know what we have to do now.”

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They need better ball movement and better shooting, particularly from Malone, who was often left alone yet hit just three of 14 shots.

They also need to continue to rely on their playoff horse, as O’Neal finished with 20 points, 17 rebounds, two blocked shots and a complete whipping of an obviously weary Yao Ming.

He not only outfought Yao for that airball, but he outscored him by 11, outrebounded him by six and eventually fouled him out.

“It was an ugly game today but we fought our way through it,” O’Neal said afterward.

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If only he could convince the sellout Staples Center crowd to change their chant to a single syllable.

“Ko-be, Ko-be” they cried instead.

Bryant answered by going four-of-19, but countered that by playing terrific defense on Cuttino Mobley, who committed seven turnovers.

Lasting Laker impressions, however, weren’t so favorable.

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In the end, it was Houston’s Steve Francis penetrating while the Lakers were standing.

In the end, it was Houston’s bench that was standing and cheering while the Lakers bench sat frozen.

Phil Jackson showed up with his championship ring from the Lakers’ first Jackson-era championship in 2000, a feel-good time with little joys at every step.

So much for superstition.

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Before the game, assistant coach Frank Hamblen wrote “Bond: 35:00" on the board, meaning the Lakers were to come together in 35 minutes.

They are still waiting.

Just before the game, the players lined up on the court for a national anthem wonderfully sung by ... a 13-year-old girl.

Where were you, Jeffrey Osborne?

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The night was so nutty, during the celebrated Kiss-Me cam segment, the cameras focused on A.C. Green.

And the ex-Laker who was renowned for celibacy delivered a prolonged kiss to his wife.

Who hit the biggest jump shots? Try Kareem Rush and Fisher, who combined on a trio of three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

Who was the most important Laker ballhandler? Try the Rockets’ Francis, who committed seven turnovers, including losing the ball to Gary Payton down the stretch.

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“We know we can play with the Lakers, we’re not going to back down one bit,” said Francis.

This is what is known as preaching to the choir.

Typical of Saturday, with 3:30 remaining in the game, the video scoreboard showed Magic Johnson, and he wasn’t smiling.

Despite the crowd’s huge ovation, he frowned, shook his head, rubbed his brow.

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Probably doing it still.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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