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
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
"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,
"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
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
"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
Odom replaced center
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."