Aaron Brooks scored 26 points, Luis Scola added 24 points and 12 rebounds, and the scrappy, undermanned Rockets pushed the Lakers to the limit in their Western Conference semifinal series with a 95-80 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night.
Reserve Carl Landry scored 15 as the Rockets built another huge lead in the first half, then fought off a Lakers rally to force Game 7 on Sunday at the Staples Center.
"For the last two days, all I've heard is that we weren't going back to L.A.," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "Our guys in the locker room didn't believe that."
The Lakers have one more opportunity to finish off Houston, but they probably didn't expect to need it, three games after Yao Ming exited the series with a broken left foot.
"They all have the same mentality, they all fight for everything that they get," Bryant said of the Rockets. "That's why we're in the position that we're in right now. They don't quit. So Game 7 is going to be exciting."
The winner will play the Denver Nuggets, who finished off Dallas on Wednesday night and now have a few extra days to rest.
Like Bryant, Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson tried to put a positive spin on his team's predicament.
"There's nothing to worry about," he said. "We are just going to go out and play. It's our home court and it's what we play for. We play a different game on our court, and that's pretty obvious to see."
Los Angeles won Game 5 by 40 points, matching Houston's worst playoff loss, but the Rockets came out dominant instead of demoralized on Thursday.
They put together a near carbon copy of the first half of Game 4, when they seemed to hit every open shot, smothered the Lakers on defense and built an 18-point halftime lead.
"We really came out with a great deal of aggression," said Shane Battier, who played 42 minutes, despite an illness. "We were just focused. We took care of the ball, we swung the ball and we played the way we know we can play."
Bryant missed a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer and angrily shook his head as he stormed off the court. The Rockets led 52-36 at the break -- one basket shy of the halftime score in Game 4.
"We just didn't start the game off the way we should have," Bryant said. "We didn't execute right. They jumped on top of us."
On Sunday, Houston stretched its lead to 29 and cruised to a 99-87 victory. This time, the Lakers made a game of it, opening the second half with a 16-2 spurt.
But Landry converted a three-point play to break the Lakers' momentum and Brooks sank a 3-pointer to help Houston rebuild its lead.
The Rockets hit their last eight shots in the third quarter and took a 75-65 lead to the fourth. Landry drove down the lane for a one-handed dunk with 6:56 left to put Houston up 81-71 and Bryant checked in after a long rest.
But Bryant missed four of his next six shots and Brooks scored eight points over the next five minutes to secure another surprise over the Western Conference's top seed.
"I think it's fun," Brooks said. "We enjoy it. We got them on their heels a little bit. The pressure's on them."
The Rockets scored 40 points in the paint and held Los Angeles to 36 percent shooting (30-for-84). The Lakers went only 5-for-23 from 3-point range.
Houston opened the game with a 17-1 burst, electrifying another red-clad capacity crowd at the Toyota Center.
Bryant made the Lakers' first field goal near the six-minute mark, but Scola put in another short jumper to make it 19-3 -- one point better than Houston's opening run in Game 4.
Houston stayed in control for the entire half and Bryant's frustration boiled over near the two-minute mark.
With Ron Artest blanketing him near midcourt, Bryant appeared to shove Artest and earned a technical foul. The temperamental Artest, ejected from Games 2 and 3, ran away to avoid a confrontation and Brooks sank the free throw for a 47-31 Houston lead.
"I've stopped trying to figure this team out," Battier said. "Just when you think we're down and out, this team comes with an unbelievable effort. We may not have the most talented team, but there's not a team with more heart in this entire league. We've shown it again and again and again."
- The Rockets have won 11 of their past 12 home games.
- The team winning after the first quarter has won all 12 of Houston's postseason games.
- The Lakers are 30-4 all time in seven-game series when they have a 3-2 lead.