December is over, and for that the Lakers can be thankful.
Sunday night came another close loss to an elite team, in a game in which the depleted Lakers had no business being competitive.
It took two overtime periods for the Houston Rockets to finally shake the Lakers. P.J. Tucker scored off an offensive rebound to give the Rockets a 144-142 lead, then a defensive stop for the Rockets and a Lakers turnover sealed their fate.
The Lakers lost to the Rockets 148-142 on New Year’s Eve, falling to 11-24 on the season while the Rockets improved to 26-9. The loss extended the Lakers losing streak to six. The Rockets ended a five-game losing streak, which began with a loss to the Lakers on Dec. 20. That had been the franchise’s longest losing streak since January 2013.
With the loss, the Lakers closed a grueling month in which they played the Rockets three times, the Golden State Warriors twice, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks. The Lakers play Monday in Minneapolis.
“A loss is a loss but I think this loss is kind of how we started out playing,” forward Brandon Ingram said. “Defensively especially having a tight shell on the defensive end and having each other’s back. … But I think we got killed on the offensive glass. Other than that, guys played their butts off.”
Julius Randle started his second consecutive game, and reached double figures again, this time scoring 29 points with 15 rebounds, both season highs, before fouling out in the first overtime period. Rockets guard James Harden led all scorers with 40 points, making 17 of 21 free throws and adding 11 assists.
This time, Randle set a tone early, making six of his first eight shots. He had 19 points in his 14 first-half minutes and 10 rebounds by halftime, too.
“Just mentally trying to be prepared like I have been all year,” Randle said. “Just attacking.”
The Lakers made 61% of their shots in the first half. The Lakers led by seven points at halftime, on the strength of a season-high 72-point first half.
Josh Hart, who had a career-high 26 points, hit a three-pointer to start the second half, and from there the Lakers extended their lead. With 6:34 remaining in the game, they led by 17 points. The Rockets quickly roared back, but the Lakers led for most of the second half, until a frenzied final couple minutes gave the Rockets a chance to steal a win.
With 1:16 left in the game, Harden got to the rim, scored and was fouled. His free throw tied the score, and marked the first time in the entire second half that the Rockets didn’t trail the Lakers. Harden was injured on the play and left the game.
Seconds later, Kyle Kuzma coolly sank a three-pointer, inches away from the Rockets bench. As it fell, he bounced up and down, turning toward the cluster of Rockets players standing near him.
Houston’s newest addition, Gerald Green, tied the score again with 17.7 seconds left. The Lakers counter — another three-point attempt by Kuzma, who made five of eight in regulation — didn’t fall.
The Lakers closed their first overtime period with a big moment from Ingram. He drove to the basket and was fouled by Tucker with the Lakers trailing 133-131. Ingram, who had made only 61% of his free throws entering Sunday’s game, hit both free throws. He made all six free throws he took during the game.
Before the game even started the Lakers were already shorthanded. Lonzo Ball was in Los Angeles going through treatment and conditioning as he worked to recover from a shoulder injury. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remained in California, unable to leave the state until he finishes serving a 25-day jail sentence. Brook Lopez didn’t make the trip as he recovers from a sprained ankle.
In the second overtime the Lakers got even thinner. Hart and Tyler Ennis both fouled out, joining Randle, who fouled out in the first overtime.
That combined with little mistakes here and there gave the Rockets the opening they needed.
“We just made some mental mistakes down the stretch,” Ennis said. “If we cut down on basically one of those we could have won that.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli