Rockets 102, Lakers 77

The Lakers certainly traveled a lot of miles to lose two games to Memphis and Houston like that. If you’re looking for the constants from both nights, they start with Kobe Bryant getting in foul trouble early and the Lakers’ struggling to shoot the ball. They went 64 for 166 (38.6 percent) from the field in the two games.

Kobe Bryant made an interesting comment after the game. Namely that Andrew Bynum should call Dikembe Mutombo and ask for some pointers. If nothing else, Bynum should ask Mutombo his secrets for being able to play into his 40s.

“For Drew to get to that level, he has to watch and learn and study Dikembe and how he’s able to do that,” Bryant said. “If I was in his position, I might lob a call to Dikembe and talk to him. That’s what I did. I came up, I talked to M.J., I talked to Scottie, I talked to those guys because I wanted to learn from them. He’ll find that most of the guys will be very helpful in teaching him that and passing off that knowledge to the next generation.”

Bynum on the matchup: “He got a couple nice blocks. Not much to say about that. I had a couple, too. I just didn’t wave my finger. That’s his thing. I’m not going to steal it.”

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I tried to keep the Chris Webber particulars as basic as possible because I’m never sure quite how many readers understand the salary-cap details or really care. Here’s a little bit more of a breakdown: Because the Lakers are over the cap, they have to use league-wide exceptions to be able to sign players. And they’ve already spent the two biggest for this season.

They spent the $5.215 million mid-level exception on Vladimir Radmanovic and the $1.75 million bi-annual exception on Shammond Williams. The Lakers only option for signing Webber is to offer him a minimum contract for $1.178 million. They wouldn’t even have to make that much of an investment in Webber because the Lakers would be on the hook for only $744,551; the NBA would pay the $433,000 difference.

Money shouldn’t be much of an issue to Webber: He’s owed more than $40 million from the Sixers. The Lakers also would face a question about releasing a player. Chris Mihm is out for the season with ankle surgery but has trade value with an expiring contract worth more than $4 million. Aaron McKie is making $2.5 million but is on the active roster right now with all the Lakers’ injuries.

If you read Marc Stein’s article on ESPN.com tonight, Webber has the Lakers on his wish list of five teams. The three biggest questions are whether Webber is anything close to healthy, how much of an obstacle it would be picking up the triangle offense and whether the Lakers need him if Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown both can make it back by the end of the month.

I’m sure Lakers fans have some strong feelings about the possibility of seeing Webber in purple and gold after so many years with the Kings.

* * *

You don’t see Phil Jackson get ejected from many games. In fact, Bryant wasn’t sure if it had ever happened. The last time Jackson got tossed came in Game 2 of the 2001 Western Conference Finals against San Antonio. Before that, the last regular-season game was Nov. 12, 1999 against Houston.

The way Jackson reacted to the technical foul referee Tony Brothers gave Brian Cook earlier in the third quarter had me convinced that he was getting tossed as soon he got out of his seat to argue for a foul call on Luke Walton’s behalf.

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

HOUSTON–In case they needed a reminder of why it was so important to win 12 of those 15 home games to start the season, the Lakers got it Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets when nearly everything that could go wrong did.

They suffered a 102-77 loss in a game that ended with both Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson in the locker room early. Jackson was ejected in the third quarter while Bryant left the bench with 3:33 remaining after suffering a groin strain in the second quarter.

It was a night in which 40-year-old Dikembe Mutombo turned back the clock with one finger-wagging block after another. The Lakers shot a season-worst 34.8 percent and came apart in the third quarter for the second time in as many games.

So went the good feelings from Sunday nights victory over the Dallas in only 72 hours. Now 7-9 on the road, the Lakers can fall back on the 16-4 home record built in November and December at Staples Center.

“Were not playing the same basketball we were just three days ago when we were at home, Luke Walton said. “Weve got to sit down, figure out what were doing differently and get back on track.

Bryant finished with 20 points on 6 of 18 shooting and was hindered by the groin injury. He pulled it when he took an outlet pass in the second quarter and went to accelerate. As for his availability Friday against Orlando, Bryant was optimistic after the game.

“I should be fine to play, Bryant said. “Itll just take some adjusting. Well just treat it around the clock like we normally do. Hopefully, itll be closer to 100 percent than it is now.

Already playing without injured starters Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown, the Lakers can ill afford to lose Bryant. Although it was described as a minor strain, Jackson called it “a difficult injury to overcome

There was plenty of time for Jackson to think about all that went wrong. He was ejected by referee Tony Brothers with 15.3 seconds left in the third quarter after arguing a foul should have been called when Walton was hammered on a drive by Mutombo.

“It just was one of those kind of situations where our guy went to the basket again, got knocked in the stands and there was no call, Jackson said. “That was the second guy in a row. (Maurice Evans) went before him and got knocked into the seats.

It wasnt the first flare-up between Jackson and Brothers in the quarter. After he was called for his fourth foul with 9:35 left in the third, Brian Cook voiced his displeasure to referee Greg Willard as he headed to the bench.

Without a word said in his direction, Brothers whistled Cook for a technical, leaving Jackson bellowing, “Whats your problem? Cook was animated in yelling, “Im not talking to you, before taking his seat.

“I dont want to talk about it, Jackson said afterward. “Hes not worth talking about anyway.

The third quarter again was the Lakers undoing. One night after giving up 46 points to Memphis in the third, the Lakers made just 4 of 22 shots and lost the quarter 25-12 to the Rockets. They scored only 31 points in the second half.

“Were just not executing well or coming out with the kind of energy that we need to, Bryant said. “Teams are really busting us in the third quarter. If we can kind of solve that mystery and play at least half the quarter decently, well be OK.

With Yao Ming out a minimum of six weeks with a fractured bone in his right leg, the Rockets started Mutombo at center, leaving an intriguing matchup against Andrew Bynum between the NBAs oldest and youngest players.

Mutombo made history at Bynums expense in the third quarter. He blocked Bynum twice around the basket to tie and pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – - Bynums mentor, no less – - for second on the NBAs all-time list.

In signature fashion, Mutombo wagged his finger on both plays. He finished with seven points, 19 rebounds and a season-high five blocks and sits second to Hakeem Olajuwon with 3,191 career blocks.

Bryant described Mutombo as “masterful at what he does. Jackson was upset that the Lakers went at Mutombo instead of working around him as the game plan dictated.

The Rockets won even with Tracy McGradys streak of 30-point games coming to an end at six. McGrady made just 4 of 16 shots but finished with eight points and 12 assists. Shane Battier hit five 3-pointers as Houston went 12 of 36 from long range.

Jackson said he was concerned about his young players staying positive after the back-to-back losses. The Lakers still have to play 11 of their next 16 games on the road.

“This is just one of those times in the year, Jackson said, “when youre not playing well, the teams you run against are, and you have to get back and do the things that got you to where you were.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

HOUSTON–Will the Lakers enter the Chris Webber derby if and when the Philadelphia 76ers agree to a buyout of the former All-Star forwards contract? That was the question for Lakers coach Phil Jackson before Wednesdays game.

“I think thats been speculated for a month and a half now, Jackson said. “Chris is a great player. We have to leave that in (general manager Mitch Kupchaks) department and just allow him to suggest that or to deal with that as that comes along.

Webber told ESPN.com that he hopes to sign with one of five teams, a list that includes the Lakers along with Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit.

Jackson mentioned feeling “short-handed playing recent games without injured starters Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown. The Lakers expect to get Odom back before the end of the month and hope Brown can follow soon after.

Webber hopes to finalize the buyout today and sign with a team Monday. The Lakers would have to release a player to make room for Webber on the 15-man roster and have already used their mid-level and bi-annual salary cap exceptions.

There also are questions about Webbers diminished ability. He will turn 34 on March 1 and has averaged 11.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 38.7 percent in 18 games for Philadelphia this season.

“In a hypothetical case like this, Jackson said, “Ill tell you that we would have to do research on a player, look at the games that he had played in, analyze the tapes to see what it looks like physically, all that type of stuff before wed even consider a player.

Numbers game: All it took was a change to No. 24 for Kobe Bryants jersey to return to No. 1 in popularity, according to sales figures released by the league Wednesday.

The NBA reported sales from its online store and retail store in New York from the start of the season through Dec. 31. A league spokeswoman said there was no breakdown for sales of Bryants old No. 8 jersey versus new No. 24.

“It just shows that I have a lot of support out there, Bryant said, “and my fans have come to terms with embracing 24.

Miamis Dwayne Wade and Clevelands LeBron James ranked second and third, respectively, in jersey sales. Wades jersey had been the NBAs most popular since May 2005; Bryants was the most popular for the 2002-03 season.

Bryant made the switch to the number he first wore in high school to mark what he described in May as the start of the “second leg of my career.

For the fifth consecutive season, the Lakers ranked first in sales of team merchandise.

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