Depleted Lakers take on soaring Rockets

Bad has gone to worse for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Already set to face a red-hot James Harden, the Lakers' frontcourt will be heavily shorthanded on Tuesday night against the streaking Houston Rockets.

Los Angeles looked to be hitting its stride under new head coach Mike D'Antoni, winning a season-high five straight from Dec. 14-25. However, the Lakers have lost three straight and four of five since to fall three games under .500 and learned on Monday they will be without center Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol for Tuesday night's game due to injury.

Howard, still rounding into form following back surgery that ended his 2011-12 season early, injured his right shoulder last Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, then aggravated the injury in Sunday's 112-105 setback to the Denver Nuggets. An MRI on Monday revealed a torn labrum and he is expected to re- examined in a week.

That figures to keep the big man out for at least the next four games, including Wednesday's contest in San Antonio.

Gasol, meanwhile, did not make the trip to Houston due to a concussion suffered after taking a blow to the face against Denver and forward Jordan Hill is also out due to a right hip injury suffered on Sunday night.

Howard is second on the Lakers in scoring with 17.3 points per game and is the leading rebounder at 12.4 a contest. Gasol, meanwhile, has struggled through injury this season and is averaging 12.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

Now 11 games off the pace for first place in the Pacific Division, securing a playoff spot is looking like it will be a battle for a Lakers franchise that has missed the postseason just once since the 1994-95 season.

"You feel at some point you hit rock bottom and then the only place you can go is up," said guard Kobe Bryant, who leads the NBA in scoring at 30.5 points per game.

"There's nothing much we can do. We've got guys that have really been practicing hard and really preparing for their moment and now they have a moment to really step in and contribute."

Those likely to see more time include center Robert Sacre, a rookie recalled from the D-League who is averaging just over four minutes of action in 13 games, and second-year guard Darius Morris. The Michigan product is averaging 4.8 points per game in 29 contests.

"Obviously, it got a little bit more difficult, but it's an opportunity for guys to step up. We've got guys on the bench that want to show what they can do, so they will have that opportunity," said D'Antoni, who said the team will go with a smaller lineup due to the injuries.

The offense figures to still go through guard Steve Nash, who is five assists shy of reaching 10,000 for his career. If he hits the milestone tonight, he would be the fourth-fastest to reach the mark, doing so in 1,162 games. Only John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd would have done so in fewer games.

Los Angeles' defense will have its hands full trying to slow down Harden, who is fifth in the NBA in scoring at 26.4 points per game and is coming off a Western Conference Player of the Week award.

Harden netted 16 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 112-104 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and added a career-high seven steals in leading Houston to its fourth straight victory and ninth in 11 games.

"James sure made a couple of big shots down the stretch, no doubt about that," Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said. "He made some great plays and, as a team, we found a way to make plays through him. He had a very good game for us."

Harden has netted at least 25 points in each of his last 12 games, tied with Elvin Hayes (Nov. 12-Dec. 1, 1968) for the second-longest such streak in team history. Moses Malone holds the franchise record with 13 consecutive games, accomplished from Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 1982.

The Lakers and Rockets have split two meetings so far this season, with each team winning once at home. Houston overcame a 17-point deficit to win the most recent encounter on Dec. 4, 107-105.

Harden had 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to help Houston win its third straight home game over Los Angeles, while Bryant netted 39 points.