Lakers’ teamwork shines through in 99-98 win over Rockets

HOUSTON — The Lakers kept making mistakes, but they didn’t point fingers. They didn’t always look pretty, but they scrapped their way into cleaning up their mess. And once Steve Blake hit a dagger three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 99-98 victory Thursday over the Houston Rockets, everyone celebrated at midcourt elated that it all came together.

It seemed all too perfect that the Lakers would beat the Rockets in what marked Dwight Howard’s first game against the purple and gold since leaving them this summer by providing something that had been mostly absent during his lone season here.

Teamwork.

“That’s the way we have to win,” said Blake, who provided 14 points on 5 of 10 shooting. “We can’t do it by ourselves. We don’t have that player right now. To do it together is the most important.”

Without Howard’s presence, an injured Kobe Bryant and a Steve Nash fighting Father Time, the Lakers showed they have to provide contributions that represent a sum greater than their parts.

That’s because the Lakers nearly coughed up a 19-point lead. They almost lost the ball three times on the final possession before Houston knocked the ball out of bounds. Lakers guard Jodie Meeks was supposed to throw the inbounds pass to Nash, not Blake. But with Houston’s defense flooding the top of the key, both Nash and Pau Gasol set up tough screens that opened up Blake to pop out on the nearside of the court. The Rockets looked lost on the rotation, prompting Howard to rush out to the perimeter to block the shot.

Too late.

“Guys just kind of messed up on the play,” Howard said. “It happens. We just have to come back next game and make sure we have a better start. We got back into the game, but we didn’t finish them off. There are a lot of things we need to work on.”

Meanwhile, the Lakers are enjoying the regular-season process of a team fully coming together.

“That’s probably the best shot I’ve made in my career,” Blake said. “I’ve never quite made a shot like that. It would have been better if the buzzer was going off when it went in, but it was just a great team effort.”

The Lakers (3-3) showed that in various ways.

Meeks provided shooting (18 points on a 6-of-9 clip and 5-of-7 mark from three-point range). Wesley Johnson showed assertiveness (16 points) and hustle (once stripping Howard of the ball inside).

Chris Kaman started at power forward over Shawne Williams to help Pau Gasol defend Howard and 7-footer Omer Asik. The Rockets’ frontcourt duo combined for only 21 points. Nick Young also posted 11 points, replacing Xavier Henry at small forward in the starting lineup.

“I’m proud of everyone’s effort tonight,” Gasol said. “We were able to sustain their run and really dig in at the end of the game and believe in ourselves.”

Even with James Harden’s 35 points and Gasol’s 1 of 10 clip from the field, the Lakers offset that by going 16 of 35 from 3-point range (45.7 percent). Incidentally, the Lakers have spent a good portion of their practices going over drills that require the team to make quick passes in hopes of building rhythm, ball movement and team play.

“We have a lot of open 3′s because we were swinging the ball to the open man,” Meeks said. “The plays don’t always work out correctly. So we have to find different ways to score the ball.”

And once they did that, the Lakers’ locker room vibe hardly showed elation over sticking it to Howard after he left them via free agency. Instead, the Lakers spoke glowingly about the bond they have forged through simple hustle.

“We’re not real secure right now about what we’re doing,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But with that kind of chemistry and energy, we can get there.”

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