LOS ANGELES — Who would have guessed that the most mild-mannered Laker on a roster loaded with volatile personalities would be the first to pop off? And who would have guessed that LeBron James would be an afterthought on the night he made his long-anticipated Staples Center debut?
Yes, it was Brandon Ingram who sparked a fourth-quarter fistfight that led to three ejections in a 124-115 loss to Houston on Saturday, the same Brandon Ingram who rarely raises his voice in interviews and often wears a “Humble Beast” diamond pendant around his neck. The lanky third-year forward won’t be mistaken for a heavyweight fighter any time soon, but his fierce and immediate reaction to a late-game foul set off a chain reaction that saw Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul trade punches and ended when Ingram dashed across the court to throw one of his own.
This was the rare NBA fight that merited a blow-by-blow account. With Houston leading 109-108, James Harden drove to the hoop in transition and drew contact on Ingram as he tossed up a lay-up. While Harden unsuccessfully pleaded his case for an and-one, Ingram shoved the reigning MVP in the back. That prompted a quick technical foul from an official, who stepped in between the two players and received an earful from a frustrated Ingram.
Lance Stephenson interceded to pull Ingram away from the pile, but then a scrap that appeared to be winding down took a turn for the worse. As Paul and Rondo engaged in a lengthy conversation, Paul shoved his finger in Rondo’s face, sending the Lakers guard staggering back. Rondo regained his balance and then stepped into a left-handed punch to Paul’s face; the two players then exchanged punches as James, Eric Gordon and a referee attempted to break them up. Ingram, who had been cooling off near mid-court, sprinted towards the pile to throw a right-handed punch at Paul, who was being held back by James. Thankfully, Ingram didn’t connect cleanly or incite further chapters to the madness.
Afterwards, the Rockets alleged that Paul’s finger-pointing had been provoked by Rondo spitting towards him. “It was some heated stuff,” said Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. “Some spit was thrown. When you cross the line, it happens.”
While early video replays were inconclusive as to whether Rondo had spit to instigate (spit-stigated?) the fistfight, Rockets forward Carmelo Anthony was left with no doubt. More detailed videos emerged on Sunday that provided fairly conclusive evidence that Rondo did spit on Paul.
“It was bulls—t, plain and simple,” said Anthony, a longtime friend of Paul, when asked specifically about the alleged spitting. “Unacceptable. We all knew what happened. You don’t do that to nobody, in sports or on the streets. That’s blatant disrespect. You don’t even see that in the streets.”
Once the dust settled, Ingram was assessed a personal foul for contacting Harden on the drive plus two technical fouls for his role in the altercation, leading to an automatic ejection. Both Paul and Rondo were also ejected for throwing punches.
The Lakers offered little insight on the brouhaha, with coach Luke Walton instead countering that a flagrant foul delivered by James Ennis earlier in the fourth quarter could have potentially raised tensions between the teams. As Josh Hart drove into the paint on a fast break with roughly 10 minutes remaining, Ennis delivered a careless hard foul to the LA guard’s neck, knocking him straight to the court.
The officials ruled that foul a Flagrant 1 rather than a Flagrant 2. The former designation applies to contact that is deemed “unnecessary,” while the latter mandates an automatic ejection for contact that is both “unnecessary and excessive.” Ennis was therefore allowed to remain in the game.
“I had zero idea how that was a Flagrant 1,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He clotheslined our guy, picked him up off our feet and slammed him. if I’m a player, that’s where [I think] if that’s only a Flagrant 1, we can play a little more physical. I didn’t sense anything too crazy [leading up to the fight], besides our guys being a little irritated that that happened and [Ennis] wasn’t penalized more.”
Nearly lost in the “mayhem”—Walton’s word—was James’s Lakers debut, which was hyped with a pre-game video narrated by Ice Cube and an in-game jumbotron commercial starring Snoop Dogg. James finished with 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, but his most memorable moment came when he held Paul back from continuing to fight Rondo and then consoled him afterwards.
Despite his ringside seat, James stayed mum on the altercation. “I didn’t see anything and I didn’t say anything to my teammates after the game,” he said dismissively.
The fight presents real short-term implications for James and the Lakers, who are searching for their first win and more consistent chemistry after a pair of losses to the Blazers and Rockets. When LA hosts San Antonio on Monday, Walton will be without two starters—Ingram and Rondo—due to suspensions.
Ingram was hit with the harshest suspension (four games) due to his aggressive running towards a defenseless Paul—Rondo received a three-game suspension and Paul received two. Walton utilized a nine-man rotation against Houston, and he will likely look to start Lonzo Ball in place of Rondo and Josh Hart or Lance Stephenson in place of Ingram. James needs all the help he can get, especially on the defensive end, where LA has been roasted twice in two games.
LA’s newest megastar insisted that he was “not frustrated” by the Lakers’ opening week, before pointing to Houston’s post-fight response as his main takeaway from a wild Saturday night. The Rockets gathered themselves without Paul and closed with a 15-7 push, as Harden scored eight of his game-high 36 points and found a wide-open PJ Tucker in the corner for a dagger three down the stretch.
“We were right there [when the fight broke out],” James said. “It was a one-point game. We had opportunities to win the game. … We have a long way to go to get to the Rockets and a lot of the teams in the Western Conference. They’ve just been together for so long. We’ll learn from our mistakes and continue to get better.”