By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles Lakers were indebted to bench players Shannon Brown and Steve Blake as they launched their NBA championship defense with a nail-biting 112-110 win over the Houston Rockets Tuesday.
Brown knocked in four three-pointers and fellow guard Blake slotted three, the last of them with just 18.8 seconds left on the clock, as the Lakers came from 15 points behind.
The lead changed hands four times in the last minute of a gripping contest at the Staples Center before Blake's final shot effectively sealed the win.
Kobe Bryant, although not at his best after having off-season surgery on his right knee, scored 27 points for the Lakers while Spanish forward Pau Gasol added a game-high 29. Brown ended up with 16 points and Blake finished with 10.
Guard Kevin Martin top-scored with 26 points and Aaron Brooks contributed 24, including four of six three-pointers, for the Rockets who led throughout the second and third quarters.
Yao Ming, who missed all of last season because of a fractured bone in his left foot, contributed 11 rebounds and nine points for Houston after playing only 23 minutes.
The evening began on a high note for the Lakers when last season's team and coaching staff were presented with diamond-encrusted gold championship rings.
Veteran forward Ron Artest, who joined the team before last season, then urged the sellout crowd to look upwards as the 2009-10 NBA championship banner was unveiled in the Staples Center rafters, sparking frenzied applause.
With the ceremony over, both teams displayed early-season rust but the Rockets, helped by three three-pointers from Brooks, took advantage of poor Lakers defense to race into a 33-26 lead after the first quarter.
Los Angeles, initially struggling with their outside game, trailed by 15 when Brooks knocked in another three-pointer late in the second period before a Bryant jumper and two free throws trimmed the deficit to 62-51 by half-time.
Gasol and Bryant, finally gelling superbly on offense, sparked a rousing Lakers fightback in the third quarter which ended with guard Blake scoring two three-pointers for Houston's lead to be cut to 82-77.
Brown coolly knocked in a three-pointer to give the home team a 91-86 cushion before adding two more in a dizzying 21-second sequence to send the partisan crowd into a frenzy.
Leading 99-91, the Lakers inexplicably lost control at both ends of the court as the Rockets began to claw their way back to set up a thrilling finale.
Houston will visit the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, while the Lakers are next in action against the Suns in Phoenix on Friday.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)