With O'Neal a last-minute scratch because of a foot injury, the Los Angeles fell behind early and never fought back as they dropped a 91-81 decision to the New York Knicks for their 15th loss of the season matching last season's total.
"This is a tough situation for us because we've never really had to play without Shaq for a long period of time. We're not used to playing without him, and it's tough to go out there and try to wing it," Kobe Bryant said.
The Knicks took the lead for good midway through the first, closed the quarter with a 15-2 run to open a 33-19 lead and stayed comfortably ahead the rest of the way despite playing short-handed themselves as Marcus Camby (suspension) and Kurt Thomas (sprained ankle) also sat out.
"Why didn't I go to the bench?" O'Neal said, repeating a question. "I was told to stay in here.
Bryant did what he could to carry the Lakers, scoring 33 points, but also found himself getting yelled at by coach Phil Jackson on more than one occasion once for talking out of turn in the huddle; another time for failing to pass to a wide-open Ron Harper.
"Just one time tonight," Bryant said, "but for the most part Phil and I have mutual respect and I go out there and do my thing. (Assistant coach) Tex (Winter) is the one that's constantly in all of our ears. You can hear him from the other end of the floor."
The loss was the third in four games for the Lakers, who were held to their second-lowest point total of the season.
Houston hit one of his three 3-pointers with 1:37 left in the first quarter to give New York its first double-digit lead, 29-19, and the Knicks totaled nine fast-break points in the first quarter - more fast-break points than they had accumulated in 27 of their first 41 games.
Rice missed his first four shots before connecting on a corner jumper for a 41-31 lead midway through the second quarter, and Houston drove around Isaiah Rider for a layup that made it 47-33 late in the half.
Jackson turned to Bryant and yelled "Don't argue" when Bryant tried to say something during a timeout late in the first half, and Jackson and Winter yelled "Pass the ball to the open man! Do it!" after Bryant abandoned the triangle offense and took an ill-advised jumper during the third.
The Knicks took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter behind 24 points from Houston and 21 from Sprewell before Robert Horry made it a nine-point game by hitting a 3-pointer with 6:33 left.
Houston then hit a pull-up jumper, Rice came up with a steal and Houston hit a 3 to make it 80-66. The Lakers never threatened thereafter.
"If they can learn anything from our team, we try to play unselfishly and we have great team confidence," Sprewell said. "We like each other on our team. We all get along and I think that goes a long way toward having team success."
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