LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The No. 8 jersey was awfully snug on
Shaquille O'Neal's 335-pound frame, but it got his message across.
After wearing Kobe Bryant's jersey during warmups, player
introductions and the national anthem, O'Neal dominated Houston
with 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers -- playing without Bryant -- beat the Rockets 95-79 Sunday night.
Bryant was serving the first game of a two-game suspension for
his fight with Indiana's Reggie Miller on Friday night.
"That's my guy. I know they're going to show it on every
channel, and that's why I did it -- to keep him alive," O'Neal said
of his decision to don Bryant's jersey.
"I know he's going to come back with a vengeance. It's going to
put us right back on track. Everything happens for a reason."
The NBA suspended Bryant and Miller two games apiece earlier
O'Neal has called Bryant his "little brother" and Bryant's
brief bout with Miller followed O'Neal's wild swing at Brad Miller,
then with Chicago, back in January.
O'Neal drew a three-game suspension, and while he was out,
Bryant played with the Los Angeles center's No. 34 written on his
Lakers coach Phil Jackson seemed to appreciate the way O'Neal
chose to show his support for Bryant.
"It was motivation for the team and sympathy for Kobe not being
here," Jackson said. "I was surprised, but not totally surprised
that something like that would happen with Shaq. I think there was
a message he was trying to send to the rest of the team."
O'Neal, who promised before the game to "hold the fort" during
Bryant's absence, dominated inside against the Rockets, going
15-for-21 from the floor and 6-for-11 from the line. He grabbed seven
"I'm not saying they're better without Kobe, but there's no
difference because that means Shaq plays even harder," said
Houston reserve Walt Williams, who had 19 points in 21 minutes.
"He's the best player in the NBA right now."
The victory, coupled with Sacramento's 97-86 defeat to Indiana,
pulled the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers to a game of
the Kings for the league's best record.
Robert Horry added 14 points and eight rebounds for Los Angeles,
which moved ahead of the Rockets early in the second quarter and
stayed there, opening a 59-42 margin four minutes into the third.
Steve Francis scored 20 points for Houston, but was 7-for-20 from
Bryant took a swing at Reggie Miller just after the final buzzer
of the Lakers' 96-84 victory Friday night, then the two wrestled
briefly before the scuffle spilled over onto the scorers' table.
Neither was seriously hurt.
Bryant also was fined $12,500, and Reggie Miller $10,000.
Bryant, whose two-game suspension will cost him about $250,000
in salary, also will miss the home game Tuesday night against the New
Mitch Richmond started in Bryant's spot at guard against the
Rockets and had eight points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes.
Los Angeles was up 71-58 heading into the final quarter and
stayed comfortably ahead.
O'Neal had 22 points by halftime, and Los Angeles led 46-38.
Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets' center for 17-plus seasons,
will play at Houston on Tuesday night for the first time since
joining the Raptors. ... The Lakers' Rick Fox, noting that the
Pacers won at Sacramento without Reggie Miller, said, "Maybe
they're a better team without him." ... Jackson said he doesn't
believe other teams will try to goad the Lakers into fights,
saying, "I don't think the league is going to allow people just to
come out and start hammering our guys to get them to fight. I think
referees are good enough to measure all that stuff out."