HOUSTON The issues continue to roll off the Lakers' collective backs like water through the rocks of a tranquil stream. This group seems impervious to concerns even when they are pressing and legitimate.
The shorthanded Rockets, absent their starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, shredded the Lakers' defense in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night at Toyota Center with reserve guards Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee inflicting significant damage. And while Lakers coach Mike Brown wailed afterwards, equally aghast and puzzled by the repetitiveness of their deficiencies, the Lakers seemed far from fretful.
Down by double digits midway through the fourth quarter, the Rockets roared back and snatched a 107-104 victory that exposed the Lakers' most recent set of ever-evolving ills. The problem du jour: their defense.
"I'm concerned but I'm confident that we'll get it fixed," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "We've responded to challenges all year. In a way it's good to go through something like this."
Said Lakers forward Pau Gasol: "It's about attitude, it's about will, it's about communication, it's about working together in the same direction. So let's see if we can make that our priority in our next games and make sure we come out with secure rebounds, and then go out and play on the other side of the floor. But first things first."
The Lakers (28-18) could easily present two sides to this argument. The Rockets (25-22) became the fifth consecutive team to eclipse the 100-point barrier while hosting the Lakers. During that stretch the Lakers are surrendering 105.4 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting.
But for all of their road misery, the Lakers had won three consecutive games away from Staples Center before the Rockets rallied improbably. Even without center Andrew Bynum (16 points, seven rebounds, two blocks), who picked up his second technical foul and was ejected with 1:10 left in the third, the Lakers were in total control. Gasol scored with ease at the rim at the 6:41 mark of the fourth, and the Lakers led 95-83.
Then the Rockets corralled three offensive rebounds on the ensuing possession, the latter two by reserve forward Patrick Patterson, who then converted a short jumper that sparked a 17-2 run. Rookie Chandler Parsons, Dragic and Lee drilled open 3-pointers to slice the deficit to 97-96 before Parsons turned a poke-check steal into a layup and a lead.
It was fitting that the Rockets turned the tables with defense. They forced 15 turnovers and converted them into 24 points. When Lee picked up two early fouls, Parsons assumed the defensive assignment on Bryant for lengthy stretches. That Parsons was a willing and fearless defender helped explain why Bryant needed 27 shots to score 29 points.
"He did a good job," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Parsons. "He (Bryant) made a couple of tough shots. You know Kobe is a closer. Kobe's been a closer for a long time in this league. Chandler did what you've got to do. You get a hand up. You try to make them take shots.
"When Kobe has a lot of (shot) clock to work with and he's on top of that key, you don't have a very good feeling in your stomach when that's happening. But Chandler defends well. He's a good, solid defender."
Bryant drilled three difficult jumpers down the stretch, but the Lakers had surrendered all of their advantage and momentum by that juncture. That Dragic and Lee finished them off, with Lee delivering a skip pass to Dragic that Dragic converted into a trey and a 104-101 lead with 28 seconds left, spoke volumes about both the Rockets and the Lakers.
The Rockets willed themselves to victory even with Dragic and Lee continuing to log heavy minutes with Lowry (bacterial infection) and Martin (shoulder) sidelined. They combined for 39 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists knowing in advance they were the first and last options.
"They can play and this is what happens," Rockets forward Luis Scola said. "You've got Goran now, you have Courtney, we've got a bunch of guys who are looking for their opportunity and waiting for their opportunity, and when the time comes they just go out there and play."
The Lakers could offer no excuses as to why the Rockets' reserves rose up and snatched what should have been a casual triumph. Brown sees problems bigger than this one night festering, although this collapse provided him with additional ammunition to support his argument.
"The last seven, eight ballgames we just haven't been playing well defensively," Brown said. "We're breaking down in pick-and-roll coverage, we're breaking down with our weak-side awareness. In transition teams are getting open shots or layups. It's the same old song.
"About a week ago we told our guys the last five games at that time we were giving up a hundred and something points and 47, 48 percent from the field. And it's continued these last three or four games since we told them that, and there's no sense of urgency. That, for me, is concerning."
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