The Lakers played the Houston Rockets in a game Wednesday that just as easily could have been called "Short-Handed Team A vs. Short-Handed Team B."
A lot of players sat out — including LeBron James and Anthony Davis — as the Lakers outlasted Houston, 124-122, at Staples Center.
Talen Horton-Tucker scored 23 points and Wesley Matthews had a rare game-deciding steal for the Lakers, who were suddenly on a three-game winning streak.
Kyle Kuzma put the Lakers ahead by one on a running floater with 6.9 seconds left. Then Matthews poked the ball away from Kelly Olynyk and Horton-Tucker dove on the loose ball to secure the victory with 0.9 seconds left.
Horton-Tucker continued a solid two-game run that included the game-winning three-pointer Tuesday in overtime against New York.
Despite the win, the Lakers (40-30) couldn’t improve their position in the Western Conference.
Portland and Dallas also won their games Wednesday, keeping the seventh-place Lakers a game behind them in the standings with two left for each team.
It’s an important distinction in a season where only the top six in each conference get a guaranteed playoff spot. Teams seven through 11 must prove their worth in the new play-in tournament.
In order to finish sixth, the Lakers must win their last two games (at Indiana and at New Orleans) and hope Portland or Dallas goes 0-2.
Portland’s remaining schedule is difficult (Phoenix and Denver) while the Mavericks’ final games are against non-playoff teams (Toronto and Minnesota).
The historically memorable part of the night came before tip-off when the Lakers raised their 2020 championship banner in front of about 3,000 fans at Staples Center.
Team Governor Jeanie Buss, James and Davis took turns addressing the crowd as part of the seven-minute ceremony. The Lakers only recently started allowing a small crowd at Staples Center.
“We’ve waited until now because our banners have always been about our fans,” Buss said. “We’ve been awarded our trophy, the players have their rings. Our final piece of business to commemorate our 2020 NBA championship is to honor our fans with the banner.”
Said James: “We love you guys and our road to a back-to-back [championship] starts in about a week. So let’s get going.”
There was optimism James would return Wednesday from a five-game absence but he was downgraded from questionable to out a few hours before tip-off because of a sprained ankle. Davis missed the game because of a strained groin. Dennis Schröder remains sidelined because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
The Lakers, however, had no problems scoring and set a franchise record with 86 points in the paint.
It came down to defense, though. Matthews unveiled his second clutch late-game play in as many nights, this time knocking the ball away from Olynyk as the Houston center tried to drive toward the basket. Matthews scored on a put-back in the final seconds Tuesday to send the New York game into overtime.
“He’s been playing really well for us the last two-three weeks. He’s back to playing how Wesley Matthews plays,” Kuzma told Spectrum SportsNet.
Olynyk scored 24 points for Houston, which owned the NBA’s worst record and started resting its top players weeks ago. The Rockets did their damage Wednesday from outside, outscoring the Lakers by 33 points from three-point range.