Kobe Bryant does not require much of a shove to assert himself on behalf of the Laker offense. So when a fresh lineup had Bryant on his beloved wing and Shaquille O'Neal came down with two swollen thumbs and a nasty case of foul trouble, then the Lake Show went Kobe.
Bryant scored 37 points, his second consecutive game with more than 30, and the Lakers defeated Houston, 105-99, Sunday night at Staples Center. O'Neal fouled out after 32 minutes with 14 points and five rebounds. He has averaged a mortal 17 points and 9.3 rebounds in his last three games.
O'Neal has a sprained right thumb, and the left one isn't much better. X-rays taken after the game on the right thumb were negative.
"There's been a lot of chopping," O'Neal said of the preferred defense against him. "I'll be fine."
Asked how badly his thumbs hurt, O'Neal answered, "A lot."
That would go a long way toward explaining his 41.3 field-goal percentage in three games.
"The ball hasn't been rolling off his hand like it normally does," Laker guard Brian Shaw said. "I think he's having trouble with it."
O'Neal insisted he would play through whatever pain he might have. He had five rebounds and six blocks against the Rockets.
There isn't much time for O'Neal to heal. The Lakers play four games in six days beginning Tuesday against Denver, and it won't take long for other centers to start aiming for the thumbs.
It bothers the Lakers that O'Neal isn't better protected by the same officials who fouled out O'Neal.
"He was taken out of the game," Coach Phil Jackson said, and he didn't mean by Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Lakers ended a two-game losing streak and featured a revamped starting lineup.
Shaw started alongside Ron Harper in the backcourt. Bryant started at small forward, where, if Jackson would allow, he would happily spend the rest of his career. Rick Fox, who hadn't shot well for six games, was sent to the bench.
The Lakers didn't average even 80 points in the two defeats. The chill of that ineptitude reinforced Jackson's lessons on the triangle offense, and the Lakers went into their seventh game with a renewed enthusiasm for teamwork. They moved the ball better than they had since their opening night win in Portland.
They were better, even with Bryant's 29 shots. Play turned choppy with fouls--the teams combined for 70 free-throw attempts--and still the Lakers were more orderly.
"It felt pretty good," Shaw said. "We did it for a couple of days in practice, working on moving the ball so everybody got some touches."
The Rockets are problematic for the Lakers because of their quickness. They had seven players score in double figures. Moochie Norris scored a team-high 15 and Kenny Thomas had 14, and neither started.
Despite a 16-point lead in the third quarter and a 10-point lead in the fourth, the Lakers labored to finish the Rockets.
With O'Neal on the bench, the duty fell to Bryant, who scored the Lakers' final eight points. He has taken 60 field-goal attempts in two games, though no one took issue with his attack mentality against Houston.
Bryant smiled a lot, played to the crowd and was relentless going to the rim.
"He had to take responsibility for the game," Jackson said.
Afterward, it sounded as if Bryant will continue in the same mode.
"I'm going to have fun," he said. "It's important to have fun when you play the game and not get caught up in the hype and the pressure of it all.
"If people are going to criticize that, then they're going to criticize that."
O'Neal and Bryant looked to pass early, and that appeared to nudge the offense into rhythm.
"We have to have better playmaking on the floor," Jackson said. "That's one of the keys for this team. It generates from being able to operate inside the offense. We need to execute on the court. We need to get the ball into the places it should be at the right time. There are some subtleties there and there are also some gross inadequacies. We're working on that right now as a basketball club."
Bryant, he said, is a large part of that, as he spends so much time with the ball in his hand.
"They all have responsibility for it," he said. "Kobe, obviously, was a playmaker last year and bought into it. This year he hasn't had the same success. Although, the game where he scored  points [Wednesday against Houston] he had eight assists. That does tell you how much he dominated the game, or tried to dominate the game with his play.
"It's not the assists--as much as being able to organize the team and direct the offense in a way that creates the shots and the space for us to operate as a team out there. At times we're wedging the ball into Shaq at times when there's three guys around him because there's a feeling it's got to go in there. They have to play ball and then go back into him. That subtlety's lost right now. It's going to take a while to sort all of that out."
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