Physical play was the tone tonight as the Los Angeles Lakers evened their second round match-up with the Houston Rockets at Staples Center, 111-98. Five technical fouls were called. A flagrant 2 foul against Derek Fisher. Ron Artest was ejected after confronting Kobe Bryant in a menacing manner. In between the chaos, the Lakers managed to pull even with the Rockets at a game apiece in the Western Conference semi-finals. Game 3 moves to Houston on Friday night, and if you thought the Boston/Chicago series was tough, hang onto your hats. The Lakers made amends for their poor performance in Game 1 by blitzing the Rockets in the opening quarter. Kobe came out on fire and despite Shane Battier’s hand planted directly in his face, Bryant scored 15 points in the period which ended with the Lakers holding a 39-25 lead. But the Rockets didn’t fade, and held the Lakers to only 18 points in the 2nd period and pulled even at 57-57 heading into halftime.
The Lakers reestablished themselves in the 3rd period, and behind the play of Pau Gasol, (22 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocked shots), and Kobe, (40 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists), held the Rockets at bay. Things got chippy in the quarter as Lamar Odom, (7 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists), got fouled by Luis Scola under the basket and appeared to be tugged down by his jersey. Luke Walton intervened as did Derek Fisher, and Odom, Scola and Walton all received technical fouls for their part in the confrontation. On the ensuing play, Scola came up to set a high screen pick on Fisher, (12 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), but before he could, Fisher turned and caught Scola with a high forearm shimmy which sent Scola tumbling to the floor. Fisher was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and was ejected from the game. Replays show a hard hit administered by D-Fish with NBA policeman Stu Jackson, who was present at the game, clearly taking notes on the infraction.
With the Lakers leading by nine points going into the 4th quarter, the whistles came fast and furious in an attempt to restore order. Midway through the period, Ron Artest, (25 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds), got tangled with Kobe under the basket vying for rebounding position. Artest appeared to be forcing Kobe to the ground with a forearm to the neck, and Bryant retaliated with a wild elbow swing. Artest was whistled for the foul and immediately ran to referee Joey Crawford to complain about the elbow thrown by Kobe. Distraught that his words were falling on deaf ears, Artest then made a bee-line to Kobe and got up into his face to voice his displeasure. The referees immediately separated Artest and Bryant, but Artest continued to shout at Kobe. Artest was then assessed a technical foul and promptly ejected from the game. The Lakers, minus their starting point guard, played the entire quarter under the shaky hands of Jordan Farmar. But the increase in playing time appeared to set well with Farmar, (5 points, 1 assist, 1 steal, 0 turnovers). His defense on Aaron Brooks helped steer him into a poor shooting performance, (13 points, 5-15 from the field). And through 3 quarters at least, Fisher too, made amends for his poor performance in Game 1.
Lamar Odom started in place of Andrew Bynum, (8 minutes, 3 fouls, 0 points, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), but still struggled from the field. He more than made up for this with a strong rebounding game and solid defense on Scola, (12 points on 5-14 shooting). Yao Ming, (12 points, 10 rebounds), was plagued by three early fouls which severely limited his playing time. Carl Landry set a playoff career high with 21 points off the bench. The majority of his points came in the 2nd quarter, when Houston made their run and got back into the game. The Bench Mob seemed unable to maintain the frenetic pace set by Kobe and the starters in the opening period. But as the game progressed, and as the Lakers were left without the services of Fisher, they seemed to finally realize the importance of the game and came through in the clutch. Luke Walton, (6 points, 5 assists, 2 steals), returned after missing the previous three games due to a partially torn deltoid ligament. Shannon Brown, (7 points, 2 steals), saw limited action but was effective in his time on the floor. Sasha Vujacic, (4 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal), struggled to keep up with Houston’s quickness and speed, but managed to draw two offensive fouls on Von Wafer. Wafer, the former first round pick of the Lakers, got into a heated argument with Houston coach, Rick Adelman, and was instructed to leave the bench and head for the showers.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
The Lakers shot 50% for the game, hit 6-17 from distance and converted 19-26 free throws for 76%. They out-rebounded the Rockets, 40-39, dished off for 23 assists, forced 19 turnovers, and rejected 8 shots. Houston shot 46% for the game and connected on 21-29 free throws for 72.4%. The intensity of the series was just pushed up a notch and it will be very interesting to see how the teams come out in Game 3. Commentary after the game all voiced that Fisher is due for a one game suspension. But in listening to his post game comments, Fisher stated that he intended to give a hard foul, (because the Lakers had one to give), but that the distance was greater than he anticipated between himself and Scola. What he planned to be a quick turn and foul, transformed into a much more forceful blow that sent Scola sprawling to the ground. Scola, in his post game interview, saw nothing dirty in the play and accounted for the hard foul as nothing more than simply, playoff basketball. But with the recent rough play in both conferences, the NBA may have no choice in the matter than to suspend Fisher for Game 3. Kobe, for his part, in all likelihood, will not be suspended, but look for his non-call elbow swing to be elevated to a flagrant 1 foul.
What was lost in all of the commotion was a fairly successful Lakers game plan. They took the ball and attacked Yao Ming, effectively neutralizing him with early foul trouble. Kobe was much more focused and didn’t allow the Rockets to send any weakside help, leaving Battier alone to fend for himself. Pau responded to his subpar performance with quick moves to the basket, keeping the Rocket defenders off balance and unable to contain him. The Bench Mob, although they were outscored, 30-22, forced the Rockets into numerous defensive traps while committing only 2 turnovers themselves. The Lakers managed to pass their first early test of the post season. “Right from the opening tip we wanted to be aggressive, get after it a bit,” Bryant said. “We are being tested and this is fun.” But in light of the much needed victory, at what price will this cost? Will the NBA send a message to the Lakers? Will good guy Fisher be taken at his word? Or, will this series head down a similar, treacherous, path, reminiscent of battles with Sacramento and its then coach, Rick Adelman?