Lakers 110, Mavericks 82: Fight Night in Los Angeles

When I was watching this game, I was already thinking of potential angles for this piece. One theme quickly emerged early in the first half: The Lakers were playing 'bully ball'. After a hot start by Dallas, the Lakers seemed to literally decide to simply quite literally pound the Mavericks into submission. Shoves abounded; whether it be in attempts to get steals, or fighting for rebounds. Hell, even Pau Gasol mixed it up a little in the first half. And it got to Dallas, it was evident in the way that nobody except Dirk found ways to score, it was evident in the fact that early on they made little attempt to fight back; with the closest thing to such coming when Barea took exception to a hard foul and started jawing, but even that didn't get anywhere.

Eventually, the Mavericks did fight back, even if it seemed borne more of frustration than a desire to actually attempt to intimidate Los Angeles. Jason Terry shoved the smallest, seemingly most timid (at least in the way he plays) player on the Lakers to the floor after a foul, in a manner both cheap and dangerous (I'm guessing nobody mentioned to Terry that Steve Blake does MMA in the offseason, as a casual hobby to keep fit). What Jet didn't account on was this normally laid-back, veteran, and supposedly soft Laker squad responding in the manner that it did, with Barnes jumping in straight away to provide retaliation, and no backing down on the part of any Laker.

Now, plenty of people will argue that the whole near 'brawl' was unnecessary and that Steve Blake should have just got up and shot his free throws, but I can't agree. In the end, as much as we may try to hide it, much of pro sports is essentially a display of machismo. 'Soft' is a label many players truly despise, and tonight the Lakers, or at least the Lakers' bench, totally dispelled any notions of the Lakers' supposed softness lingering from '08.

In the end, I'd argue that even more crucial than the fact the Lakers retaliated so swiftly is how the starters reacted. Partly thanks to Kobe, not one starter left the bench, and not one starter seemed phased.  With the majority of the core of the bench ejected, Phil put his starters back on, and they simply went to business. Artest had some key plays, and played in the same happy and carefree manner he's been playing since the All Star break - one can't help but wonder if he even realised that a fight was going on. Kobe picked up where Lamar Odom left off, and the Lakers took a game that the Mavs weren't entirely out of, and turned it into one of their bigger blowouts of the season. That's composure. 

The Mavs, who'd struggled with the Lakers' physicality all game long, seemed to have no fight left after the actual, uh, fight; and didn't pose much of a challenge in the fourth. This poses three amazing shifts in the very core of this Laker squad: First, that they were the team doing the bullying (even if it is just the Mavericks); second, that they maintained their composure; and third, that they actually expanded a large lead. There can no longer be any doubt that these Lakers mean business.

This game also showed the value of this new bench unit. We already knew about Barnes' toughness (let's be honest, if Luke tried doing what Barnes did this game, we'd just laugh); but the chemistry of this bench is truly nothing we've seen before in this Laker era. The comments after the game further highlight this fact, with Barnes calling Blake 'family', and Blake talking about how much he appreciates Barnes having his back. Even in the event of a likely suspension, and even if one doesn't like the 'tough' element the Lakers have been showing; one has to admit the positive effect of this 'fight' in terms of team chemistry and proof of their maturity in continuing to play their normal game afterwards (well, the ones who weren't ejected). Even if the bench doesn't miraculously transform into a hyper-effective unit, if they can simply get under opponents' skin in the Playoffs like they did tonight, they'll be contributing plenty.

As for the actual game, it was more of the same from the Lakers: Lamar Odom is now probably the Laker I most trust with the ball in his hands; Andrew Bynum played a controlled-yet-dominant game, performing admirably in extended minutes due to Pau's foul trouble in the late first half and third quarter; Kobe started well and tailed off a bit to the finish, and Pau was a highly efficient scorer and not much else. Ron quietly had a great game, and the bench played better than they had in a while. Moreso than anything else, the passion and joy for the game exhibited on the Lakers' part is at an all-time regular season high for this era of the Laker dynasty. Ron's the happiest I've seen him, Pau actually seems awake, the bench love playing together, Lamar has a quiet confidence about him that I've never seen before, and Andrew seems to be showing true passion. Kobe even broke out  the finger-wag, which probably already featured in the nightmares of numerous Mavericks.

Of course, incidents like tonight's cannot go without repercussions, not in the current image-obsessed era of the NBA. The Andrew Bynum suspension set a precedent for Terry: Whilst Bynum's foul was more overt, it was more of a 80's basketball play in that it was unnecessarily rough but not exactly a cheap shot like Terry's. In that regard, I believe if Bynum was suspended for two games, Terry should get the same. Blake should probably be retroactively assessed a single technical, but considering the atmosphere of the game the League will probably hold that Joe Crawford's response in regard to Blake was warranted. Haywood's ejection appears to be for shoving Barnes away from Terry,which in the entirety of that scrum shouldn't count as anything, particularly considering a ref did the same; but he then sealed his fate by attempting to follow Barnes. Retroactively, that should probably be just a technical. Shannon Brown's ejection was just stupid - considering the atmosphere, it's a technical at best; and in a quiet game it would probably just be broken up without a call being made (then again, in a quiet game Shannon wouldn't have reacted like that to what was essentially a hard, but clean, foul by Cardinal; and nor would have Cardinal responded to Brown like he did).

The difficulty lies in assessing Barnes' punishment. The initial shove of Terry is definitely a technical in normal circumstances, and considering it was somewhat of a cheap shot in that Terry was focused on Blake probably makes it an ejection, which Barnes received. Soon after the shove, Barnes is moved away from the scene of trouble by a referee, before beginning to walk away on his own - except that both Brendan Haywood and Jason Terry are attempting to confront him from two different angles; which is the reason Crawford pushed him towards the Mavericks bench, probably so that Mavericks staff could stop their players. Barnes seemed irritated by this, but didn't do anything warranting a suspension so far. 

But then Mavs' assistant coach Terry Stott decided to get involved. Doubtless with good intentions in mind (probably protecting Barnes from the two crazy Mavericks players trying to follow him), he wraps Barnes in a bear-hug from behind. That I don't like. Barnes was not on his team, Stott should have instead tried to keep in between Barnes and Haywood/Terry. It was mentioned in the comments last night that it's almost an unspoken rule that opposing coaches don't touch players from the other team for fear of escalation, and Stott broke that rule. Barnes tried breaking out of the grip, but Stott wasn't letting go, so Barnes, evidently frustrated at first Crawford and then Stott holding him when he was walking away of his own accord, pretty much threw Stott off him, and into some courtside fans. Bad move on Barnes' part, and even if he truly didn't realise it was a coach, that's going to result in a suspension. I can't even argue with that: ignorance is no excuse for throwing someone into seats, and Barnes should have realised that first off, if a Mavericks player had grabbed him like that, the nearby Joey Crawford would already be breaking it up and secondly that the guy was in a suit. I'd think a one-game suspension is fair (particularly considering Barnes tried breaking free of Stott's grip less violently beforehand, but Stott didn't let go), but when one takes into consideration that Barnes threw him into a fan, I can see the League suspending him for two games, possibly even more. I'd only complain if Barnes' suspension was greater than Terry's, who started the whole thing.

The fight was something that you don't necessarily want to see (although the attitude after this seems to be 'it was worth it'), but the post-game comments were truly the icing on the cake. First, there's the shit that Terry's talking about Barnes, claiming he's been talking crap since Golden State (funny, didn't Golden State destroy Dallas back then?); then there's Barnes calmly going about promoting his clothing line; and then there's Kobe sounding like an old man talking about the 'good old days', and repeating pretty much exactly what he said after the Bynum suspension, that in the 80's you'd just take your two shots and get on with it. Entertaining, indeed.

Oh, and on a final note, I'd just like to say that unless Caron returns to pre-injury form, these Mavs will have a very tough time making it a series against us: without Caron, Dirk is pretty much their only creator in that few of the other Mavs can score when actually defended; with Terry and Kidd generally relying on our (currently extremely rare) defensive breakdowns to score. Dallas better hope they start a fight that results in longer Laker suspensions next time, or they've got no chance.

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