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GAME 3: Rockets 104, Lakers 98

Lakers: Fourth and Long

NBA playoffs: Rockets use a 13-0 fourth-quarter run to take away Laker momentum and gain 2-1 edge.


HOUSTON — Nick Van Exel didn't want to talk to the media Tuesday night. Not that there was much need. He said plenty just sitting there in front of a stall in the visitors' locker room.

Leaning forward, elbows on knees. White towel in hand, head in those hands. Towel covering his face and held in place along his temples.

Who can blame him for wanting to block out the world, if only for a minute? His Lakers, after all, had just endured a crippling 13-0 run in the fourth quarter by the Rockets that turned the game and maybe the season, a scoreless stretch of 6:19 that led to a 104-98 victory and a 2-1 series lead for Houston before 16,285 at the Summit.

Elimination for the Lakers is a game away, maybe as soon as Thursday night. A victory then will force a deciding Game 5 back at the Forum on Saturday.

"I think this team plays pretty good under pressure," Laker center Vlade Divac said.

You just couldn't tell in the fourth quarter of Game 3, when the series was on the line, when a victory would force the other team into the unenviable task of needing to win two in a row against a quality opponent.

It was the strangest time for a meltdown. Sedale Threatt had just made his first contributions of the series, a run of four consecutive baskets to start the period, capped by a three-point basket with 8:22 remaining. The Lakers had an 89-86 advantage and, after scoring on seven possessions in a row going back to the third quarter, the momentum.

Then Robert Horry's three-point shot tied it for the Rockets. Magic Johnson got his shot blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon, and Mario Elie got fouled at the other end and made both free throws. Houston was on top.

Anthony Peeler missed a three-point try, Threatt the same. More misses followed, including Johnson's three-pointer from the right side with about five minutes remaining that barely made it to the front of the rim. And these were only the cracks in the roof.

Collapse wasn't far behind. Johnson threw a pass to Cedric Ceballos near the top of the free throw circle--just as Ceballos cut down the lane, a turnover that led to Clyde Drexler's dunk in transition. The Lakers got the ball back, and this time Johnson missed with a hook. They got it back again, and Drexler stripped the ball from Elden Campbell on a double-team in the lane.

The Rockets were increasing numbers on the scoreboard like they were gas prices. By the time Peeler's three-pointer ended the drought, the Lakers were down, 99-92, with 2:03 remaining.

Nine possessions at a critical stage had yielded seven missed shots and three turnovers. And a lot of opinions on what happened.

Maybe the Rockets just played that well. "There's just something about fourth quarters that turns our lights on," Elie said.

Maybe the Lakers fell back into a season-long trap. "We slowed it down so much," Eddie Jones said after adding to his strong playoff showing with 16 points. "We didn't have a lot of movement. When we have a lot of movement, we're at our best. Sometimes we have periods like that when we don't move well without the ball."

Maybe Johnson was a disaster.

A game after taking over in the second half and leading the Lakers to victory, he offered nothing but bad images this time, and not only seven points on two-of-nine shooting in 38 minutes, though there were the game-high 13 assists against only two turnovers.

He missed all four shots in the fourth quarter, including the three-point try. Two free throws and four assists accounted for his production. He said the Rockets' adjustment Tuesday to double-team after offering mostly single coverage the first two games accounted for the struggles.

"I never really could get in the rhythm of the game, in the flow of the game," he said. "When it was time to do that, they had taken it out of my hands. Give them credit.

"We played real good basketball up to that point. And every time we had a turnover, they turned it into a basket. It was that simple."

The Lakers were down, 102-98, with 33.2 seconds left and got help when the Rockets missed five of eight free throws after intentional fouls, but couldn't find any more offense.

"We were not interested in one particular player," said Olajuwon, who had six of the Rockets' points in the 13-0 charge and 30 in the game. "We were playing team defense and making sure they earned every basket. No easy points."

Points definitely did not come easy for the Lakers, though they were left with an obvious one at the end:

Win Thursday or it's curtains for the Lake Show.




* Game 1 --Houston 87, Lakers 83

* Game 2 --Lakers 104, Houston 94

* Game 3 --Houston 104, Lakers 98

* Game 4--Thurs. at Houston, 6:30

* Game 5*--Saturday at Forum, TBA

* If necessary



Penny Hardaway had a big third quarter and the Magic held on to complete a sweep.


The SuperSonics rallied in the fourth quarter to take a 2-1 lead in the series.


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