Aaron Brooks saw the ring dripping with diamonds and suddenly he was off on a career night. He took the Houston Rockets with him, scoring a career-high 33 points, including five 3-pointers, in a 101-91 victory over Los Angeles on Sunday night, sending the Lakers to a second consecutive loss.
"That's my first time seeing an NBA ring," Brooks said. "It moved us and we played inspired basketball."
And the NBA champs? Well, they looked downright ordinary again.
The Lakers were coming off a 105-79 drubbing at Denver two nights earlier only to have another team they vanquished in last season's title run show them up at home, where they got booed.
"Defensively, we need to step it up," Andrew Bynum said. "That's what we're lacking right now. We got guards trying to box out bigs. Bigs trying to box out guards. We're all over the place right now."
The Lakers have three losses already, something that didn't happen last season until Dec. 9.
"Mortified," Kobe Bryant deadpanned. "We'll get better, we know what's at stake. We'll figure our way through this."
Aussie David Andersen added a career-high 19 for the Rockets, who lost 103-102 at home in overtime in the teams' first meeting earlier this month.
Bryant scored 41 points in that game, but he had just 18 Sunday after aggravating a groin injury in the first quarter that he sustained a week ago against New Orleans.
"I've felt better," he said. "It'll be all right. I've been nursing it, kind of playing through it."
Even though the injury affects Bryant's ability to run and change direction on a dime, he said, "You know I don't make excuses."
Ron Artest, who went to Los Angeles around the time Trevor Ariza went to Houston in July, added 22 points. Bynum had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Ariza received his ring from Bryant and Fisher on court before the game, which may have accounted for his first-half performance. He was 1 for 10 from the floor and 1 of 6 from 3-point range. He finished with nine points, well off his team-leading 19.4 average.
"I knew tonight was going to be a tough night for me," Ariza said. "I didn't play as well, but my teammates played great. Aaron played big for us, and I'm just happy we got a win."
Andersen scored Houston's first six points of the fourth, pushing their lead to 86-73 while fans booed the home team. The Lakers couldn't get a sustained run going, twice turning the ball over on offensive fouls by Bynum and Odom.
"We obviously didn't know the scouting report that well on Andersen," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We knew he's a shooter but we didn't see him playing at that level."
Houston finished 16 of 19 from the line and shot 42 from the floor. The Lakers hit 38 percent from the field, with Bryant going 5 of 20. The Rockets dominated the boards, 60-38.
"They pursued the ball really well," Jackson said. "I was upset at halftime. I thought they forced shots. In the second half, they had wide-open shots, much better selection. But they just didn't make shots."
Brooks sat out much of the fourth, but he wasn't needed. Carl Landry ran off six in a row before Brooks returned to make one of two free throws for a 97-84 lead that sent fans heading for the exits.
Brooks' personal 10-0 run gave the Rockets a 76-68 lead late in the third and seemingly took the life out of the Lakers. He completed a four-point play after getting fouled by Fisher and hit two more 3s.
"Once you give a team easy opportunities, your confidence gets higher, the basket gets bigger, the 3-point shots fall a little bit more easily," Bryant said. "We got to do a better job stopping them from getting easy points."
Andersen scored 13 points in the second, when the Rockets tied the game twice and took a two-point lead before trailing 54-52 at the break.
Bryant and Artest carried the Lakers to an 18-6 lead before Brooks' and Budinger's shooting rallied the Rockets within six points after the first quarter.
"They got out in transition, got some easy buckets and we turned the ball over," Brooks said. "It reminded me of Game 7, when they got off to a big lead and just sustained it and grew on it the whole time. So tonight we made big steps."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said C Pau Gasol, who has missed 10 games with a strained right hamstring, has gone five days without reporting soreness. Gasol did some light shooting Sunday before his usual rehab work. ... The Lakers showed Ariza's career highlights with them on the video board, which read, "Thank you Trevor." Ariza carried his young son on court to receive his ring, with Bryant grabbing his head and pulling it close to whisper. "He's like my brother, always will be," Bryant said later.