LOS ANGELES -- Soft. It was a word that hung over the Lakers like a dark cloud during last year's NBA Finals and continued to haunt them during the off-season. Every time they were pushed and didn't push back, every time they were fouled hard and didn't return the favor, every time someone stood up to them and they didn't stand just a little bit taller, that word would rear its ugly head.
On Wednesday, the Lakers pushed, elbowed, shoved and even cheap-shotted that word into oblivion during their 111-98 victory against the Rockets (RECAP |BOX) to even the series at a game apiece.
In a game with five technical fouls and two ejections, the Lakers not only saved themselves from an 0-2 hole but also showed that this wasn't the same team that got roughed up by Boston last year.
It began when Luis Scola grabbed Lamar Odom's jersey on a foul late in the third quarter, prompting Odom and Luke Walton to get in his face. Moments later, Derek Fisher gave Scola a forearm shiver that knocked him to the ground and knocked Fisher out of the game, as he was ejected for a flagrant foul. (Even though he pleaded with the referees that he was just trying to run -- more like steamroll -- through a pick.)
"We're capable of doing a lot of things out there," Fisher said. "We intend to win a championship, and whatever it takes to do that, that's what we're willing to do."
Midway through the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant caught Ron Artest near the throat with an elbow that caused Artest to get in Bryant's face, his nose touching Bryant's cheek as he yelled at him, which led to Artest being ejected.
"It was a good, physical game," Bryant said with a smile. "You know, it's playoff basketball. Intensity is elevated a little bit because there is a lot at stake. I think it was a just a good, physical game."
Walton remembered hearing how the Lakers were soft last year and how they needed a player like Artest to get them over the hump.
"In the Finals last year, we didn't match Boston's intensity and we learned from that," Walton said. "If teams want to play physical with us, we'll play physical back. We have no problem playing tough. "We're definitely tougher than last year. We learned from our mistakes. We played against a more physical team last year and we made it a point that that would never happen again."
The game also brought the realization that this could be the Lakers team we are going to get during these playoffs. A scrappy, herky-jerky group that mixes explosive runs with periods of inactivity; a squad that is compelling yet frustrating and altogether unpredictable from one night to the next.
The Lakers couldn't have started the game any hotter, taking a 41-26 lead after connecting on 14 of their first 17 shots. It was like watching Usain Bolt racing Yao Ming in a 100-meter dash. Then in the second quarter they completely shut down when their second unit entered the game. Rockets reserve forward Carl Landry outscored the entire Lakers team (16-15) before Bryant hit a three-pointer at the end of the half.
The duel between Artest and Bryant was a thing of beauty through three quarters, with each player matching the other with one amazing shot after another. Yet as good as Artest was, his meltdown and ejection provided yet another reminder that the Rockets' fortunes are tied to his ability to stay under control.
When Artest is on his game, playing within the confines of the team and listening to coach Rick Adelman, the Rockets are one of the best teams in the league. When Artest isn't, well, we saw what happens.
"For this Rockets team, Ron Artest means more to us than he has to other ball clubs in years past, and he has to understand that and we need him on the floor," Rockets guard Brent Barry said. "I expect him to be in a better mental state for the next game. We need him to be."
Kobe Bryant. It was clear early that this would be Bryant's night. After hitting only 14-of-31 shots and 1-of-7 from beyond the arc in Game 1, Bryant came out firing Wednesday. He hit 7-of-11 shots in the first quarter for 15 points and finished with 40 on 16-of-27 shooting while carrying the Lakers for long stretches. "Right from the opening tip I wanted to be aggressive," said Bryant, who recovered from the flu he was battling Monday. "It's the playoffs, this is when it's the most fun."
Yao Ming. What a difference a game makes. Yao went from being an indispensable part of the Rockets, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Game 1, to being a hindrance in Game 2. The big man was in foul trouble all night, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds, with only two points and five rebounds coming in the first three quarters. He watched as the Rockets played their best while he was on the bench. Yao had a plus/minus ratio of minus-28 as Houston seemed to be a more explosive group with Landry and Chuck Hayes on the floor.
Carl Landry. There wasn't a more surprising stat line than Landry's. Coming off the bench to spell a foul-plagued Yao, Landry scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, well above his pre-Game 2 playoff averages of 5.1 points and 2.9 rebounds. He was part of a bench that gave the Rockets a huge spark in the second quarter when it looked like the Lakers would run away with the game.
20 fast-break points for the Lakers. The Lakers are at their best when they are pushing the ball. In Game 1, they had only 10 fast-break points; in Game 2, they had 20 to the Rockets' five. If the Lakers can make Houston play at their tempo, Houston will not be able to keep up.
Odom replaced center Andrew Bynum in the starting lineup for Game 2, just as he did after Game 3 in the first-round series against Utah. "Outside of a guy who is injured, I've never done that," the Lakers' Phil Jackson, who has coached nearly 300 playoff games, said of changing his first unit in the midst of the postseason. "It's more about the type of execution that we can have on the floor and the number of games we've played as that collective unit [with Odom in the starting lineup] in the last year and half that gives them more comfort. We're so much better at the offensive end." Bynum went scoreless in nine minutes off the bench.
It's hard to have a must-win game this early in a series, but this was really a crucial game for the Lakers. Not just for the series, but for their confidence after the way they played in Game 1. The series now shifts to Houston tied 1-1, and the emotions that boiled over near the end of the game will no doubt bubble up once Game 3 tips off in Texas on Friday. "We're going to be there, and we're going to make sure that they have to go through us in order to win this series," Barry said. "We look forward to get them back home."