Photo courtesy of Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

When the universe gives you a 3-19 from the field version of James Harden, a Rockets squad that shoots 32% in each of the first three quarters and a 17-point lead in the third quarter; all without your starting power forward, starting point guard and back-up point guard – YOU DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO WIN THE GAME IN THE FINAL MINUTES. Play tighter defense, take better care of the ball, run an efficient offense.

Through three quarters, the Lakers looked like they were going to recover from the disappointing loss against the Orlando Magic two days ago. Pau Gasol sat out to care for the tendinitis in his knees (something that I think he should have done sooner), but Antawn Jamison stepped in to take his spot in the starting line-up, as did Chris Duhon in place of Darius Morris.

The Lakers rolled for about 40 minutes, leading by 13 points with just over nine minutes left to play in the game. But as has happened a few times this season, they lost focus when it mattered most, and the Rockets took full advantage of it. The lead dwindled in the final half of the quarter, with Houston running a popular play called “Hack-A-Dwight,” sending the clearly unconfident Howard to shoot free throws and wasting Laker possessions on the All-Star’s inability to score from the line.

Defense – In the first 36 minutes, the Lakers kept the Rockets at bay by eliminating their star (James Harden was just 2-15 through three quarters and 3-19 for the game), keeping them off the free throw line (Houston attempted just 15 free throws at this point) and holding them to 35% shooting from the field. It was a defensive effort that should have gone out with a proverbial bang in the finale quarter. SHOULD have.
Kobe Bryant – With a third teammate sitting out, Bryant took it upon himself to be aggressive offensively. He had 31 points before the final quarter (10-17 from the field if we don’t count his 1-7 from three) and 8-10 from the free throw line. He hit a three late in the game to get the Lakers to within a point and a chance to win the game, but it was much too late to recover.
Antawn Jamison – Subbing in the first five for Gasol, Jamison had a productive night, with 15 points on 6-10, 3-4 from downtown and six rebounds. He is a savvy veteran, who still knows how to score (and score efficiently) and play the game.
Offense – The Lakers shot almost 50% before the final quarter, and they appeared poised to win this game from both ends of the floor….until the final nine minutes of the game.

Critical Quarter of Defenselessness – After holding the Rockets to just 35% shooting through three quarters, (22, 23 and 28 points respectively), the Lakers loosened their grip and allowed Houston to outscore them 34-22 on 46% shooting in the final quarter. Six Rockets scored in double figures for the night.
Offensive Rebounds – So the Lakers were a 7-foot forward short. It shouldn’t have mattered. Rebounding isn’t just for big men. It’s everyone’s responsibility on the floor to crash the boards, and especially when it comes to preventing the other team from getting multiple opportunities to score. The Houston Rockets collected 21 offensive rebounds that led to 29 second-chance points.
Kobe-Heavy Offense – Yes, of course Bryant has to take the brunt of the responsibility for this team, but for Dwight Howard, who scored 28 points just a few games ago, to get NINE field goal attempts in almost 34 minutes of playing time is just a waste of ability and talent on the floor. Bryant took 31 shots and the next highest number of attempts on the team was Jamison with 11. It’s a real wonder sometimes that Bryant knows what happens to his team when he’s doing all the work, yet still only manages to do what he knows is right, only some of the time.
And now the auto-low-points this season: Bench – 59-20 (Though, to be fair, two reserves went up to the starting line-up tonight) Turnovers – 19, Free throws – 22-34.

Should those free throws in the end have mattered so much? With a double-digit lead in the final quarter, the game shouldn’t have had to rely on Howard’s free throws or Bryant hoisting up desperate shot after desperate shot to win the game. The Rockets didn’t beat the Lakers in this game. The Lakers, as they’ve done often this season, beat themselves.

Box Score