LOS ANGELES — By the end, LeBron James‘ home opener as a Laker wasn’t about him.
It was about a rare, actual punches thrown NBA fight that saw Houston’s Chris Paul, and Los Angeles’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram ejected. All likely to face suspensions.
It was also about another Lakers’ loss, 124-115. The Lakers have started the season 0-2 and been out-executed at the end of both games (they scored just 18 fourth-quarter points Saturday).
“I talked to the guys, fights happen in sports, but we’ve got to keep our composure,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “We somewhat did, but they made a lot of shots down the stretch. (James) Harden made a couple ones, one possession with a rebound on one, we missed a switch on a high pick-and-roll…
“We didn’t execute well enough to win that game down the stretch.”
The Rockets did, bouncing back with some fight after a punchless loss to New Orleans in their opener.
“We had to win a game… ultimately the most important thing is to win the game,” said James Harden, who finished with 36 points on 19 shots. “All the commotion going on, that’s what I tried to go do.”
With it being LeBron’s home debut, the L.A. crowd was fired up from the start. The game was entertaining, back-and-forth and getting physical at points, but nothing out of the ordinary.
That was until in the fourth quarter when Houston’s James Ennis clotheslined Josh Hart who was driving the lane. Ennis got a flagrant one.
“The clothesline, three minutes prior to (the big fight), I saw that. Zero idea how that’s a flagrant one,” Walton said. “(Ennis) clotheslined a guy, he picked him up off his feet and slammed him on his back, and that’s a flagrant one. To me, if I’m a player or a teammate, and that’s a flagrant one, then we can play a little more physical.”
It did get physical after that and a few minutes later is when things spilled over into the fight.
Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram was particularly frustrated with Harden drawing foul calls (welcome to a big club, Brandon) and after Harden drew another with 4:13 left in the game Ingram let his frustration go and pushed Harden. That was a quick and deserved technical, which there was jawing, which is when Lance Stephenson stepped in to pull Ingram out and protect him from himself (yes, Stephenson was the level head… it was weird to type that).
Usually in an NBA “fight” that’s when things calm down.
Saturday night, that’s when things went crazy.
Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — two guys who don’t like each going back most of a decade — were jawing after the play when CP3 took his finger and pushed Rondo in the face — and Rondo responded by throwing a punch.
Paul insists Rondo spit on him, which provoked his reaction. Rondo and the Lakers vehemently deny this. (On the video you don’t see Rondo intentionally spitting, but did spittle fly out of his mouth while yelling? Who knows.)
“That’s what (Paul) is saying. And as a man, the only thing you can do is react,” Harden said. “Stand up for yourself.”
Once that punch was thrown it was mayhem on the court.
Which is when Ingram came sprinting back into the scene and threw another punch. He was quickly pulled out of the pile, but the damage was done. He was going to be ejected and could face the longest suspension of anyone because he was the third man into the fight (and instigated everything shoving Harden).
Once everything settled down, the ejections came — Ingram, Rondo, and Paul were all gone. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s lead disciplinarian, was in the building and saw everything first hand. Expect the suspensions to come down Sunday, before the Rockets play the Clippers on Sunday night.
For the Rockets, it’s a win to build on, although they may have to do that without Paul for a game or two.
For the Lakers there were positives — Lonzo Ball had a strong night and was 4-of-8 from three, and the offense looks good when they run (in the halfcourt, there’s work to do) — but they need more consistent shooting and improved defense to the close games they will find themselves in a lot in the West.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” LeBron said postgame. “I knew we were going to have some early struggles. Nobody said this was going to be easy….
“We got a long way to go to get to the Rockets, to get to a lot of teams in the Western Confererence, they’ve just been together for so long.”