With the game on the line, Nick Van Exel went for the shot and, just in case, the foul, leaning in a way that would let him shoot the straight-away 20-footer just before the buzzer and maybe also draw contact from Matt Maloney. He was off balance. Again.
He missed. Again. The Houston Rockets gladly accepted the 90-88 victory Sunday afternoon before a capacity 17,505 at the Great Western Forum, the result of Charles Barkley's 18-footer with 3.6 seconds left, just as Van Exel accepted the blame for the Lakers' 1-3 mark since the All-Star break, even if there was no shortage of people offering an out on this one.
"I don't think there was any question that he got fouled," Laker Coach Del Harris said. "I think you could ask anybody in the house."
Try almost anybody. Referee Leroy Richardson, positioned nearby, didn't give the Lakers the call they wanted, prompting Harris to throw up his arms in disgust. Van Exel, in what has become a rare display of such aggression, got in Richardson's face and "let him have a piece of my mind."
Not too big a piece, though. Most of his negative thoughts were being directed elsewhere, so Van Exel, in truth, had little interest in dropping this one on Richardson's doorstep. He had another target in mind.
Nick Van Exel.
"Since the break, the three losses have been tough on me," Van Exel said. "In the three losses, the point guard has not played well.
"When I step my play up, the team steps its play up. That has not happened."
At least not on the whole. But there was Wednesday versus the Golden State Warriors and the eight-of-11 shooting, 19 points and 14 assists against one turnover. It's just that there was also the day before that and the days since.
Tuesday, the first game back after his all-star appearance in New York, he was two of 10 for nine points against the Portland Trail Blazers with an uncharacteristic two assists and two turnovers. Van Exel spent the final 14:49 on the bench as the reserve backcourt nearly pulled off a miracle.
Friday, he made three of 12 shots and had eight points, five assists and two turnovers against the Seattle SuperSonics, a team he usually gets up for. The other starting guard, Eddie Jones, went one of eight from the field in a return from flu and a sinus infection, prompting Seattle's Gary Payton to note of the Laker backcourt that "they haven't shot the ball well against us in two games. I don't know what's going on."
And then came Sunday. Van Exel had nine assists and one turnover, but found little consolation in that because he also missed nine shots. All nine.
"I just think it's my shooting," he said of the post-break funk. "I'm getting a lot of open looks and not knocking them down."
The final miss in his 13-for-42 run over the last four games may have been controversial for the Lakers, but even they could admit it wasn't the prime suspect in their only loss in the four-game season series against the Rockets, a double setback since Robert Horry went out for good with 9:55 left in the third quarter when his stomach injury returned. Barkley seemed like a more likely cause for blame.
In his fourth consecutive game as a reserve in the new lineup, during which time Houston is 3-1, he scored 16 points in the first half and a game-high 26 in all. At least the Lakers got off easy in one regard--Barkley came in averaging 12.8 rebounds, third best in the league, and got only seven in 31 minutes on Sunday.
Beyond that, not real easy. Even when he apparently cooled in the fourth quarter, having missed five of the first eight shots, Barkley still played the hero. It helped that Shaquille O'Neal's dunk had tied the game with 25.8 seconds left, allowing the Rockets to play for the last shot.
They went to Barkley, high on the left side, and he held the ball while time ran down, Elden Campbell waiting to defend. When the clock got to about 10, he went to work. When it got to about five, and with no sign of a double-team coming to force the ball out of his hands, Barkley shot over Campbell.
"I'd rather Charles take the bail-out 20-footer straight up into the sky than break up our defense and let them have an easy look at the basket," Harris said.
Said Van Exel: "Charles got in his sweet spot. He pretty much set Elden up. But you can't ask for much better defense. He shot over a seven-footer."
So it worked in theory at least.
"I got the shot that I wanted," Barkley said.
The winning one.