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NBA : Those blasted Rockets! : Last spring's Lakers playoff nemeses are still a handful, beating their uninspired hosts. Oh, and Bryant's hurt. / HOUSTON 101, LAKERS 91


The Lakers gave Trevor Ariza his championship ring Sunday night, but their generosity didn't stop there.

They handed the Houston Rockets just about everything else, including a victory while getting booed by their own fans in a surprisingly uninspired effort at Staples Center.

The Lakers continued to look nothing like defending NBA champions, losing to the Rockets, 101-91, after a moribund effort two days earlier against the Denver Nuggets.

This was supposed to be the start of a friendly eight-game stretch against a flurry of mediocre teams, seven of them coming into Staples Center.

But it's hard to win while shooting poorly, getting killed on the boards and showing little to no continuity on offense. The Rockets should be thankful. 'Tis not even the season yet.

Kobe Bryant made five of 20 shots and left the court for the locker room with 2:12 to play and the Rockets ahead, 97-84.

Bryant, who scored 18 points, was suffering from a strained right groin, which the Lakers revealed actually happened Nov. 8 against New Orleans. On the first play of that game, Bryant felt a twinge after stealing the ball from Hornets guard Devin Brown.

"It bothered him tonight the second half," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "The big thing is that those can linger and be a problem for a while."

Bryant made it clear he would not be missing any games, but another injury was not what the Lakers needed.

"I've felt better," Bryant said. "It'll be all right. Just treat it, try to work through it. Practice [today], play through it a little bit, see how it goes."

It's obvious how the Lakers are going. Or not going.

The Rockets, who pushed the Lakers to seven games in the second round of last spring's playoffs, now start a 6-foot-6 center, but that didn't keep them from crushing L.A. in rebounds, 60-38. They were so much more active and inspired that Lakers fan booed after a slew of Rockets offensive rebounds near the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

Shortly thereafter, Lakers fans began streaming for the exits, and it had nothing to do with beating traffic. It was the beating their team was taking.

The Lakers made only 38.1% of their shots, many of them forced. "Think so?" Jackson said sarcastically.

In addition to Bryant's off night, Derek Fisher made three of 13 shots. Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Josh Powell were a combined two for 12.

It all came after the Lakers' lowest-scoring half ever, a 23-point slumber in the final two quarters Friday at Denver.

"Offensively, [we're] stagnant," Andrew Bynum said. "All on one side, not moving the ball, not running the offense."

The Lakers also need to defend better. Point guard Aaron Brooks ripped them for 33 points and Houston outscored them in the paint despite its height disadvantage, 44-40.

Before the game, Lakers fans were in an appreciative mood while watching a video montage of Ariza with the Lakers last season. Fisher and Bryant hugged him at midcourt before giving him his ring.

Ariza didn't shoot well Sunday, scoring nine points on two-for-12 shooting, but he did fine in the hustle categories, finishing with eight rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots.

On the good side for the Lakers, there might be progress on the Pau Gasol hamstring watch. Sunday marked his fifth consecutive day of working out at the team training facility in El Segundo. He also did some light shooting.

"He's gone five days without having any soreness," said Jackson, who was "hopeful" Gasol might practice this week.

The Lakers could use him. Just ask Ariza.

"With Pau out, that takes a lot of offense away," he said. "I don't think there's nothing to worry about. Once Pau comes back, they're going to be right back."


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