Rockets Fall Flat When It Counts

Times Staff Writer

There had been pregame talk of injuries and fatigue and playoff inexperience, all workable excuses should the Houston Rockets need to borrow a few somewhere along the line.

As for Saturday, the Rockets looked healthy, awake and playoff-tested against a Laker team that had in its starting lineup nearly 500 more games of playoff experience than the Rockets’ starting five.

But nobody stood out on the Rockets in their 72-71 loss to the Lakers, which was why there was talk afterward only about a missed opportunity, a failed effort to steal a road playoff game.

Rocket guards Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis took turns tearing into the Lakers during a split of four regular-season games, but they didn’t muster much in the way of game-deciding plays Saturday, other than in the turnover column.

They each had seven turnovers, were mostly absent in the first two quarters and finished with subpar scoring nights.


“I think we were playing with a lot of anxiety,” Francis said. “I think we’re in a good position to play better in Game 2.”

Mobley finished with 10 points on five-of-13 shooting and Francis had 18 points on six-of-14 shooting, below their season scoring averages against the Lakers: Mobley had averaged 16.8 points, Francis 19 points.

“I thought we played a little bit better in the second half with those two guys,” Rocket Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “But you know it’s not about individual performances. It’s about the team winning or losing. They made one more play than we did tonight.”

Francis was part of the last gasp for the Rockets, driving under the basket and feeding Jim Jackson for a good look at a three-point shot from the corner as time ran out. The shot went askew, and so did the Rockets.

“Steve made the right play,” Van Gundy said. “Our best three-point shooter, his spot and it didn’t go, but it was a great play.”

All the injured, ailing and otherwise showed up for the Rockets. Mobley played despite a bruised shoulder, Francis took the court with an inflamed elbow and a sprained wrist, and Yao Ming managed to beat back whatever fatigue he said had been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Yao looked slightly better than he did in a six-point, three-of-15 shooting display April 1 against the Lakers. He made four of 11 shots Saturday for 10 points and took 11 rebounds before fouling out in the final minute.


“He’s 22 years old,” forward Kelvin Cato said. “He ain’t tired.” But neither was O’Neal, who caught Kobe Bryant’s airball and dunked it with 17.4 seconds left to give the Lakers the lead for good. It was on that play that Yao fouled out.

“You’ve just got to keep him out of the lane and hope he misses shots,” Cato said. “He takes a lot of punishment and gives a lot of punishment.

“Hopefully Yao can bang with him a little bit, enough to make him mad so he’ll start dropping that shoulder and knocking people out.”

The Rockets didn’t do so well in other areas, specifically turnovers. They had the second-most turnovers in the league, and again hurt themselves with 15 in the first half, 20 for the game.

“We turned the ball over a lot, obviously, and those things aren’t good,” Van Gundy said.

But there would be no excuses for the Rockets. An opportunity was lost, with all the injured present and accounted for.

“Talking about injuries, talking about fatigue, we don’t need any excuses to lose,” Van Gundy said. “We need some to win. If you’re not hurting at this time of the year in the NBA, you haven’t been doing your job. We’re fine, absolutely fine.”