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WHAT WAS THAT?

The Lakers have talked about winning a championship since training camp began on a sunny September morning in El Segundo.

Seven months and 12 startling days later, they might not even get out of the Western Conference semifinals against the severely, even unbelievably, undermanned Houston Rockets.

When the Lakers were winning NBA titles earlier this decade, they made games like this look like walk-throughs, but the Rockets walked all over the present-day Lakers, 99-87, Sunday at the Toyota Center to tie the best-of-seven series at two games each.

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Somewhere, the Cleveland Cavaliers presumably were watching. The Denver Nuggets too.

Game 5 is Tuesday at Staples Center in what is now simply a best-of-three series. The Lakers will return to Houston for Game 6 on Thursday, as difficult as it might be to comprehend.

The Rockets were already without Tracy McGrady and Dikembe Mutombo, then Yao Ming joined their list of done-for-the-season players the day before Game 4.

The Rockets deserve a mountain range of recognition for showing up the Lakers in almost every category despite arriving with a small starting lineup of Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier and 6-foot-6 center Chuck Hayes.

Inexplicably, the Lakers were never in it from the start, trailing by scores of 9-0, 19-4 and 26-9.

“We just happened to play probably our worst game of the year,” said forward Lamar Odom, who left in the third quarter because of back spasms and will undergo medical tests today in Los Angeles.

Magic Johnson, who owns almost 5% of the Lakers, called their effort “embarrassing” in an appearance as a TV analyst.

Few would argue.

Their pick-and-roll defense was dreadful and they were outrebounded, 43-37, by the smaller and more determined Rockets.

By the time the red streamers came flying through the air to mark the end of the game, the Lakers were on their way to a loss in which they trailed by as many as 29 points.

“Of course it hurts,” Odom said. “We got beat. Now we go back home.”

Odom fell flat on his back after being called for a charging foul on a layup attempt in the third quarter. He will be at the doctor’s office instead of the practice court today and said he would “hopefully” play in Game 5.

Coach Phil Jackson was already waving the caution flag before Game 4, well aware that the Lakers played down to the level of inferior opponents numerous times during the regular season.

“I don’t want to let my players think that it’s going to be an easy battle,” he said.

He was right.

It was an awful start for the Lakers, who made seven of 19 shots (36.8%) and trailed after the first quarter, 29-16.

The second quarter was somehow worse. The Rockets led by 19 after Kyle Lowry’s three-point play with 7:12 left and held a 54-36 halftime lead.

“We’re a little bit of a team that needs to have sometimes a spark put in us to play,” Jackson said. “You guys heard my litany before the game. You know what I was concerned about. There’s absolutely no surprise.”

The Rockets took an 83-54 lead on the last play of the third quarter, Artest inbounding the ball from beyond midcourt and hitting Brooks in stride for a pristine alley-oop layup at the buzzer.

“We just didn’t come out with the sense of urgency I would have liked,” said Kobe Bryant, who had 15 points on seven-for-17 shooting and five assists.

Brooks blistered the Lakers with 34 points and numerous drives in which he penetrated and pitched the ball to an open shooter. Battier was also strong, scoring 23 points while making five of 10 three-point attempts.

“We were joking earlier. . . . I think everyone but us got the memo that we weren’t supposed to show up today without Yao,” Battier said.

No joke, the Lakers lost every quarter except the fourth, when they made a minor rally but never shaved the deficit below 10 points.

Derek Fisher was back from a one-game suspension but had only two points in almost 20 minutes. Backups Shannon Brown (14 points) and Jordan Farmar (seven points) were more effective than Fisher.

“It was a game in which nothing got going when [Fisher] was in the ballgame,” Jackson said. “We had to go to the speed unit and start getting up and down the floor, looking to score.”

As part of a planned gag during a timeout, the Rockets’ mascot threw a cake in the face of a Jack Nicholson look-alike.

It made total sense. It was an in-your-face type of afternoon for the Lakers.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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