Friday April 1st, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- Five players, three fans and one jersey were all tossed Thursday night at Staples Center, evidence that April in the NBA has finally arrived.

The Lakers and the Mavericks have chirped at each other all season, Mark Cuban and Phil Jackson, Mark Cuban and Ron Artest, and most recently Jason Terry and Kobe Bryant. The nature of the barbs -- Cuban calling Jackson a "boy toy," Artest asking Cuban to take him out for ice cream, Terry proclaiming that Bryant could not keep up with the Mavs' backcourt -- seemed more silly than sinister. The two teams sounded like a pair of heavyweights trying to pump up pay-per-view buys. But on Thursday night, both demonstrated that their dislike is real.

The game was billed as a battle for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, a chance for the Mavericks to prove they had joined the elite and the Lakers to prove they had recaptured their championship mettle. Bryant called it the most important regular-season game to date. The crowd buzzed as if it were the conference semifinals.

The Lakers led by three points at halftime and 12 through three quarters. They were up 17 early in the fourth when backup point guard Steve Blake drove to the hoop and Terry shoved him to the ground. Blake charged back at Terry -- "Two cock roosters bumping chests," Jackson said -- when Matt Barnes came barreling through the scrum and pushed Terry.

Barnes and Terry jawed at each other, but Barnes appeared to be heading back to the Lakers' bench when Mavericks assistant coach Terry Stotts grabbed him from behind and held on for several seconds, even as Barnes yelled at him to let go.

"That's not what you do," Jackson said. "You grab your own players."

Barnes shook off Stotts and was ejected along with Blake, Terry and Mavericks center Brendan Haywood. On the way to the locker room, Barnes hurled his jersey into the stands, a move Jackson has seen before, with Dennis Rodman in Chicago.

Moments afterward, the game was stopped because of a fight in the stands, and moments after that, it was stopped again because a partially clothed woman was rushing down the aisle behind the Mavericks' bench. Jack Nicholson threw his arms up in the air and Staples Center, which has been placid for Lakers games most of this season, felt as turbulent as a mosh pit. Shannon Brown shoved Brian Cardinal after a foul on Pau Gasol and Brown was ejected as well.

For all their differences, the Lakers and Mavericks have been hounded in recent years by the same perception, that they will buckle when physically challenged. The Lakers did away with that label when they acquired Artest two years ago and Barnes last summer. Dallas is still working on it.

"This game exposed a lot of things," Mavericks center Tyson Chandler said.

Dallas lost the only fight that mattered, 110-82, and has now dropped 35 of 39 games at Staples Center. The Lakers, meanwhile, are 16-1 since the All-Star break, and though they still have a chance to catch the Spurs for the top spot in the West, odds are they will finish with the No. 2 seed and the Mavericks No. 3, setting up a combustible second-round series.

"I'm sure we'll see them again," Chandler said.

Bryant said he would welcome a reunion. He has fond memories of playoff altercations with Portland early in his career and he lavished praise on Barnes and Brown for protecting teammates Thursday. Reminded of Terry's pregame comments -- that Bryant could not keep up with Mavericks' guards given his advanced age -- he chuckled. Then he landed the last jab of the night: "So much for his career after basketball being an analyst."

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