Lakers’ growing pains expected to continue vs. Rockets

HOUSTON — Lost in the hoopla of the jersey retirement for Kobe Bryant on Monday night was another close loss for the youthful Los Angeles Lakers, a team seemingly on the cusp of respectability yet unaware of how to execute down the stretch of hotly contested games.

Among the Lakers’ last six losses, three have come in overtime. That includes a pair against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, who, after Bryant had his numbers raised to the rafters, snuck out of Staples Center with a 116-114 victory.

The Lakers (10-18) have dropped three consecutive games and eight of 10, with the New York Knicks eking out an overtime win last Tuesday and the Cleveland Cavaliers pulling away in the second half to win two days later.

Close isn’t quite cutting it for the Lakers, who will face the red-hot Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at Toyota Center. In their second consecutive overtime loss to the Warriors, the Lakers were undone by shoddy work on the defensive glass and 13 missed free throws.

While the Lakers are able to chart their progress by their improved performances, the results are disappointing and grating. Even in the midst of a franchise rebuild, the Lakers desire wins.

“Every loss feels the same,” Lakers rookie forward Kyle Kuzma said. “It’s hard to have moral victories and whatnot because we’re losing so much. It definitely sucks to lose.”

Said Lakers forward Brandon Ingram: “That’s the continued message. We’re just that close.”

The inverse almost applies for the Rockets (25-4), who extended their winning streak to 14 games by beating the Utah Jazz on Monday night. Before stifling the Jazz in the fourth quarter of their 120-99 victory, the Rockets looked lethargic defensively.

Houston had surrendered at least 100 points in five of six games prior to Monday night and needed a closing surge to record its ninth win by 20-plus points but first since beating the Lakers 118-95 on Dec. 3 in Los Angeles.

The Rockets are so potent on offense — Houston owns a 118.0 offensive rating during its streak — that they’ve occasionally relied on flipping a switch to defeat hard-working opponents.

“That’s what it’s all about: having a great start,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon said. “We haven’t been doing that this year. Once we have a great start, then we control the rest of the game. We don’t want to wait until the fourth quarter, where anything can happen. We know we’re going to play well in the fourth, but you don’t want to have that chance where a team can have a chance to win.”

Late-game rallies could represent slippage. The Rockets have played exceptionally since guard Chris Paul returned to the lineup and the grind of the schedule is sure to result in a loss sometime soon. Houston has met that challenge for more than a month, but trap games await.

“In times like this, when you let your guard down, teams that are probably not supposed to beat you are the ones that get you,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. “For us, it’s just trying to keep that mindset that every single night we’ve got to bring it, because we know they’re going to give us their best every single time.”