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Shaq dunk sends Lakers over Rockets 72-71
Updated: 2004-04-18 14:15

The playoffs arrived, the Lakers were threatened and Shaquille O'Neal bailed them out.

Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal goes after a rebound along with Houston Rockets' Yao Ming during the first half of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Saturday night, April 17, 2004, in Los Angeles. [AP]
O'Neal's only basket of the second half, a dunk off an airball by Kobe Bryant with 17.4 seconds remaining, provided the winning points in the Los Angeles Lakers' 72-71 victory Saturday night over the Houston Rockets.

The Lakers shot 25 percent in the second half (10-of-40) and 32.9 percent overall, and were outrebounded 51-41. Still, they emerged with the victory when Jim Jackson missed an open 3-pointer from the left corner just before time expired.

With the Rockets leading by one point and the shot clock running down, Bryant tried a 3-pointer despite having two defenders on him and missed everything. But O'Neal snatched the ball out of the air and rammed it into the basket while being fouled by Yao Ming, who committed his sixth personal.

O'Neal missed the free throw ! his 10th failure in 14 attempts from the foul line ! and the Rockets got the rebound and called timeout. Steve Francis drove around two defenders but ran into O'Neal, forcing him to pass the ball to Jackson in the corner. The shot hit the rim and bounced away as time ran out.

O'Neal scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half and also had 17 rebounds. Bryant took just one shot in the first half and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists, shooting 4-for-19 from the field.

Francis led the Rockets with 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Jackson and Maurice Taylor added 11 points each; Yao had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Cuttino Mobley also scored 10.

Game 2 will be played Monday night at Staples Center before the best-of-seven first-round series moves to Houston for the third and fourth games.

Derek Fisher and Kareem Rush made 3-pointers ! the first points of the game for both ! to give the Lakers a 58-55 lead, and Rush made another 3-pointer to make it 63-59.

Jackson scored the game's next five points to put the Rockets on top, but two free throws by Fisher and another pair by Bryant gave the Lakers a 67-64 lead.

A free throw by Francis and a jumper by Taylor tied it at 69, and after O'Neal missed two foul shots, Francis made a pair with 2:02 left to give the Rockets a two-point lead.

O'Neal's free throw with 1:30 left drew the Lakers within one, and there was no more scoring until his decisive dunk.

The Lakers entered with four players listed as questionable because of injuries, and all played ! Karl Malone despite a sprained right ankle, Rick Fox with his dislocated right thumb taped; Fisher (strained groin muscle), and Devean George (strained left calf).

Malone played 38 minutes but had an off night, shooting 3-of-14 for seven points. He also had 11 rebounds.

Gary Payton hyperextended his lower back late in the first half. He returned to play the second half, going scoreless in 15 1/2 minutes.

Fox, who missed the last three regular-season games, was back in the starting lineup and went scoreless in 20 minutes.

The Lakers, seeded second in the Western Conference, are shooting for their fourth title in five years. The Rockets, seeded seventh, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, when they were eliminated by the Lakers in the first round.

The Rockets tied the game 42-all by outscoring Los Angeles 8-2 in the first eight minutes of the third quarter. The Lakers shot 1-of-13 to open the period, drawing groans from the hometown fans, before Bryant made a 3-pointer to end the drought.

Taylor's three-point play with 2.4 seconds left in the quarter gave Houston a 51-49 lead. The Rockets outscored the Lakers 17-9 in the period.

The Lakers' playoff record for fewest points in a quarter is eight.

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