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GAME 4: ROCKETS 102, LAKERS 94

Show's Over

NBA playoffs: Lakers eliminated by Rockets and quieted by the knowledge that the team might be broken up.

May 03, 1996|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — The roller coaster that was the Lakers came to a halt Thursday night at the Summit, but nowhere near the summit.

Their hoped-for destination was far in the distance as the Houston Rockets put the finishing touches on the 102-94 victory that was also worth a 3-1 series win.

The Rockets next get a second-round matchup with Seattle.

The Lakers? Summer vacation.

"It's a lot of disappointment because we had all expected to win it and go a lot farther than we did," said Cedric Ceballos, who had 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Lakers in Game 4, both team highs. "Unfortunately, we ran into the Rockets."

That only brings so much consolation, though. Even if this was the toughest first-round series in the NBA in the last 15 years, as some had claimed, that still was a team that won 53 games and had home-court advantage that reached the end of the line.

The Lakers couldn't even match last season, when they reached the second round.

"It hurts," Magic Johnson said. "Any time you go out this quick, it definitely hurts. Then you have to realize the factor in the situation. The back-to-back champions showed us why they're the champions.

"We had a lot of little things going on that could not bring us together at the end of games. I hope it taught us a lesson."

Said Coach Del Harris: "Listen. We can't beat ourselves up. We came in and played hard. We did not play our best, and you had to do that to beat this team."

This definitely was not the Lakers' best, not even a representation of the team that went into the playoffs with 12 victories in the final 18 regular-season games. Of course, seven of those were with the starting point guard, Nick Van Exel, out because of a suspension, three others with Johnson also sidelined by the same penalty.

Then came the bickering. Players unhappy with roles. Players looking to pass the blame. An offense that hit quicksand in the fourth quarter, all the way to the end, to the 18-point final period in Game 4.

In the end, they shot only 41.9%, with Eddie Jones at 55.1% and Elden Campbell 51.3% . . . and Johnson hitting 38.5%, Sedale Threatt 22.2% and Van Exel 29.6%. They averaged 16 turnovers, about two more a game compared to the regular season.

A fractured team?

Cracked at best, victims of their own circumstances at worst.

"It's hard to say," Harris said. "I want to be sure to give maximum credit to the Rockets' defense and their team more than any excuse-making. Let's make that clear. Beyond that, I don't know."

But through all the emotions, and there have been plenty in the last few months, the Lakers had never been confronted by a real sense of urgency. Then came Thursday.

Seven months of work were hanging in the balance when they took the court for their latest start of the season, an 8:45 p.m. tipoff. That and the notion it could be the last time in a Laker uniform for several prominent Lakers, either because of impending free agency or trade possibilities, made it a night at the crossroads.

"You've got to recognize the fact that this is it," Harris said before the game. "And you can talk about all the other things. You never know. This team, as such, may not be together again."

The Rockets, looking to win their ninth consecutive playoff series, went for the wrecking ball early, killing the Lakers in transition and shooting 63.6% to build a double-digit lead in the first quarter for the second game in a row. Houston shot 64% Tuesday.

The Lakers spent the second quarter trying to fight back, cutting that deficit to four points, then falling behind by 12, and finally getting within 58-51 at halftime. Same thing after halftime: Mount a charge, fall off the pace again.

Houston was even able to rest Olajuwon for the final 2:40 of the third quarter and only have its lead trimmed from 11 to seven. That's where it was heading into the final period, 83-76.

With 3 1/2 minutes remaining, it was 91-86, even after the Lakers had gone through a scoreless stretch of 4:33 earlier in the quarter. Then came another bad stretch--two turnovers and four missed shots the next five possessions--and there would be no final recovery.

By the time Van Exel made a three-point basket with 46.8 seconds left--helping him go 16 of 54 from the field in the four games--the Rockets had a 95-89 advantage. The Lakers fouled to stop the clock, but Houston made five of the next six from the line.

It was 100-94 with 12 seconds remaining. The Lakers, hoping for a miracle, called timeout. What they got was something much different--Clyde Drexler intercepting Johnson's bad pass.

Drexler charged to the other end for an uncontested slam dunk and the 102-94 difference. All that remained was for the final seconds to tick off in the Laker season before it had become official.

This is where they get off.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

LAKERS vs. ROCKETS

SERIES AT A GLANCE

* Game 1 --Houston 87, Lakers 83

* Game 2 --Lakers 104, Houston 94

* Game 3 --Houston 104, Lakers 98

* Game 4 --Houston 102, Lakers 94

(Houston wins series, 3-1)

OTHER COVERAGE: C6

NBA BRACKETS: C6

OTHER SERIES

* SEATTLE 101, SACRAMENTO 87

The SuperSonics ended their first-round playoff jinx, using Gary Payton's 29 points to reach the second round for the first time in four years.

* INDIANA 83, ATLANTA 75

The Pacers held the Hawks scoreless for more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter to send the series back to Indiana for Game 5.

COVERAGE: C6

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