Lakers pushed to play nasty
The message has been sent to the rest of the NBA that L.A. isn't taking it anymore
NEW ORLEANS -- Late in Tuesday's Game 5 win by the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant cracked New Orleans' Emeka Okafor hard across the face rather than allow a layup down low, sending the man who is four inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than him to the floor.
Bryant already demoralized Okafor in the second quarter, throwing down an all-time playoff posterization in his face.
This was adding injury to insult. Okafor stayed on the court, collecting his bearings before heading to the foul line where he rubbed his suddenly sore head before missing both free throws.
Los Angeles was ahead by 16 points at the time, and there was just 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter, so it's not like Bryant was trying to stop a score by the Hornets at all costs.
It was sending a message of sorts -- the Showtime Lakers can also play like the Bad Boy Pistons.
Watch out, league.
"There was more focus to be physical tonight and I know you guys saw it," New Orleans coach Monty Williams said Tuesday. "A lot of it, it's just not basketball. So, it's just one of those things we have to recognize and withstand and kind of play and overcome it."
Correction: It was basketball, but basketball played with an edge.
Bryant was told about Williams' reaction to the Lakers' physical tactics and laughed out loud at the characterization.
"We just played, we played hard," Bryant said. "It wasn't anything that was over the top."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson chuckled and called Williams' description "interesting."
"We're not known for that," Jackson said. "We're known to be soft, but sometimes desperation can get teams activated."
It was the kind of basketball that Bryant says he wishes was played more often. "Like back in the '80s," he's said while ruing the elimination of the roughhouse game more than once in the past several seasons.
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A hard foul used to give the opponent free throws. Now, it can cost the player committing the foul a fine or suspension when the classification is changed from "hard" to "flagrant."
And don't even think about fighting. That will get you suspended a game almost automatically. And if your teammate happens to stand up off the bench to get involved, it could cost him a game too. (Ask a Suns fan about that one.)
In this bubble-wrapped modern era of the NBA, few teams have taken on a tough-guy persona for fear of league retribution for that style of play.
Basketball at its best is a beautiful, flowing game predicated on cuts rather than shoves, crisp passing rather than physical contact. But that doesn't mean that a little bit of the dirty side can't help win a championship.
Former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen spoke up after the Indiana Pacers had pulled to within 3-1 in their first-round series against his old team thanks in part to Pacers forward Jeff Foster making it his mission to take shots at Derrick Rose when he drives.
"Someone has to step up and give a hard foul," Pippen implored. "The Bulls have taken too many hard fouls in this series thus far, and have yet to give one."
While Pippen's message was meant for Chicago, it was heard in Los Angeles.
Last year the Thunder sufficiently scared the Lakers enough in the first round to get them to play hard, this year the Hornets have gotten the Lakers to play nasty. When you're the class of the league, hard might get it done to win a championship. But when you're one of four or five teams considered to be on pretty much equal footing as favorites to win it this year, that nasty edge can make all the difference.
"In my opinion, when we went to the basket tonight they were putting us on the ground," Williams said on Tuesday.
Williams had made his complaints about the Lakers' physical play heard in a more official capacity after Game 3, calling up the league office to point out that he thought L.A.'s big men were initiating contact in the paint, knocking the Hornets' defenders out of position.
Jackson had his own complaints; taking issue with the screens the Hornets' big men were setting on the Lakers guards to spring Chris Paul free to dissect the court.
Eventually, the Lakers simply adjusted to how the series was being called.
"If they're going to allow them to be physical, be physical back," Jackson said after L.A. outrebounded the Hornets 42-25 in Game 5.
Looking ahead to Thursday's Game 6, Jackson wouldn't go as far as to call it nasty, but he expects the physical nature to continue.
"I think the game will be feisty, there's no doubt about it," Jackson said after practice on Wednesday. "It's competitive. The amount of desperation that teams have to play with at this time is dialed up."
Late in the season Bryant was asked if he's ever been a part of a playoff series that lived up to the '80s level of physicality he craved. He had to go all the way back to 1997-2002 when the Lakers played, and beat, the Portland Trail Blazers five times in six years and bad blood boiled up between the two teams.
If the Lakers can get through the Hornets, waiting for them in the second round could be the Dallas Mavericks, who are up 3-2 on the Portland Trail Blazers. Dallas is a team the Lakers got so chippy with during the regular season that Matt Barnes ended up sending Mavs assistant coach Terry Stotts to the floor following some verbal sparring between Jason Terry and Steve Blake.
Meaning, the nastiness could just be beginning for L.A.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.