HOUSTON — Kobe Bryant spoke calmly and quietly, and he leaned casually against a wall in the locker room. He did not look like a guy who had just kicked somebody’s backside, or planned to.
This, of course, was Bryant’s threat, just a couple of days ago. He said he would “kick everybody’s ass” in the Lakers locker room if things didn’t change. He said Pau Gasol needed to put “his big boy pants on.” He challenged Dwight Howard to change the way he thinks about being sent to the foul line over and over again because opponents expect him to miss.
He took the Lakers to Houston on Tuesday night, and he put up 31 shots and scored 39 points. Howard went 8 for 16 at the line. Gasol didn’t play. And the Lakers committed 18 turnovers, gave up 21 offensive rebounds and let a guy named Greg Smith bang them for 21 points and nine boards.
The Lakers lost, 107-105. They are 8-10.
“We just gotta play a little better,” Bryant said.
So what is this, some kind of performance art we’re watching? This is the “I’m going to kick everybody’s ass” guy in the second act? Is this all just part of the show?
And what about Howard — Superman, as he has labeled himself — and his big-boy pants? Should not Superman be able to handle Smith, who looks and moves like an actual bear? Should not Superman do something . . . heroic?
Or at least make his free throws? Or, failing that, acknowledge the failure?
“It wasn’t our free throws,” said Howard, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds. “That wasn’t what got them back in the game.”
OK then, here’s what happened: The Lakers led by about 10 points for almost the whole game, and even led by as much as 17 late in the first half. They were comfortable enough that Bryant and Howard spent the first half of the fourth quarter on the bench. With 6:11 to play, Carlos Delfino made a 3-pointer that cut the Lakers’ lead to seven. Bryant and Howard checked in.
Down by four with 3:19 left, the Rockets (9-8) began fouling Howard 80 feet from the basket, a strategy which is an insult to Howard and everyone watching, but is nonetheless both legal and effective. Over the course of the next 69 seconds, the Rockets did this to Howard five times. He went 5 for 10.
During this time, Houston took its first lead, gave it up, then took the lead for good with 1:11 to play.
“Our defense was not where it needed to be,” Howard said.
Well, that too.
The defense seemed to have a particularly difficult time being where it needed to be when the ball was in the hands of Howard’s man, Smith. The 21-year-old second-year center out of Fresno State did not exactly whip Howard in a head-to-head matchup, but he did benefit from Howard’s splintered defensive attention. Every time a Rocket would get into the lane, Howard would step up, Smith would step behind him and end up catching the ball right at the rim. Tuesday was the second time in Smith’s career he had scored more than six points.
So maybe Howard can be forgiven for losing track of a guy who never scores, but the free throws have put Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni in a mighty fix. The Lakers are paying Howard $19.54 million this season, and it’s not to sit on the bench at the end of a close game.
And yet for the second game in a row, putting him on the bench might have saved the Lakers. D’Antoni said the people suggesting such a strategy, “have no clue what they’re talking about.”
“You don’t do that to a guy,” D’Antoni said. “And he made his foul shots.”
That’s precisely half true. Howard made eight foul shots and he missed eight foul shots, and the Lakers lost by two.
Houston was happy D’Antoni took the approach he did. Not only because Howard missed half the time, but because every possession that ended with Howard at the free-throw line was a possession Bryant was a bystander.
“It gets the ball out of Kobe’s hands,” Rockets interim coach Kelvin Sampson said.
It probably was the only way Houston was going to survive Tuesday night. Bryant, who entered the game 52 points shy of 30,000 for his career, looked like he was headed there in the first quarter, after which he had 14 and the Lakers had an eight-point lead.
This, after all, was not even a strong Rockets performance. They shot only 38 percent (to the Lakers’ 46 percent). After three quarters, Houston’s starting perimeter — Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin — was a combined 9 for 37, and the team was 6 for 28 from the 3-point arc. That’s when Sampson went to his bench. He played Smith over Omer Asik and Toney Douglas in place of Lin, and they ended up combining for 43 points.
Yeah, the Lakers were without Steve Nash and Gasol, who are both injured, but what are you going to say when the ass kicking came not from Bryant, and not from Houston’s starters, but from Toney Douglas and Greg Smith?
“We’re in the ballgames,” Bryant said. “We’ve just got to finish them a little better.”