LOS ANGELES — The third biggest Staples Center crowd reaction of the night happened when LeBron James, the player they all came to see in the Lakers home opener, sliced through the lane for a catch-and-dunk. The second biggest reaction happened when the man they couldn’t see, pitcher Clayton Kershaw, threw a third strike that sent the Dodgers to the World Series.
Both were muted by the gasp caused when Rajon Rondo stole Chris Paul with a left hook flush to the jaw and instantly threw a special L.A. sports night for a loop.
The late fourth-quarter scuffle between the two guards, who exchanged punches, was a disturbing scene on multiple fronts. Aside from spoiling the festive mood, the domino effect spilled over off the court, where the families of the two players had words after the game. And claims of Rondo spitting on Paul to push the Rockets’ veteran to the edge was roundly trashed by Houston teammates who said Rondo’s actions — if he indeed spit — were out of bounds, a violation of an unwritten rule.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Carmelo Anthony. “You don’t do that to nobody. You don’t even see that in the streets.”
Taking it a step further: You rarely see punches thrown and punches landing in the NBA anymore. This was straight out of the roughhouse 1970s, when rules were loose and fists were tight. It’s now up to the league office to sort out the messy details and issue the appropriate punishment; by coincidence, Kiki VandeWeghe, the NBA’s basketball operations chief, was in the stands for a point-blank view.
In such cases, which again are rare, multiple suspension games are most likely in order for Rondo because his punch landed.
The Lakers and Rockets engaged in an entertaining and close contest for much of three quarters, yet nothing suggested mayhem was in the making. There were no previous arguments or shoves or separating of bodies. Only one flagrant foul was called, when Rockets forward James Ennis lazily hooked Josh Hart by the arm instead of playing defense, sending Hart tumbling. But Hart rose to his feet and shot his free throws. Nothing came of that.
Even the total sequence of the Paul-Rondo fight didn’t quite seem logical.
The start: James Harden drove the lane and referee Jason Phillips called Brandon Ingram for fouling with 4:13 remaining. Ingram argued the call after the whistle, but not before shoving Harden in the back, for no apparent reason.
That gathered most of the players on the floor. In the scrum, Paul and Rondo began chatting. Suddenly, Paul wiped his mouth; he told teammates later that Rondo spit. Whether the act was intentional or merely a case of accidental spittle — or just Paul’s imagination — well, it didn’t matter at that point to Paul. He reacted by sticking a finger in Rondo’s face, not once, but twice.
Then: Just before LeBron grabbed his close friend Paul in a protective bearhug and attempted to pull him away, Rondo applied the pop. And another. And it was on.
This level of fight often draws an uninvited third party, and in this case it was Ingram, who snuck in a right punch that grazed Paul, if that. Again, this was unusual; Ingram is calm by nature and has never earned a flagrant foul in his two-plus seasons. By then, Rondo was headed to the locker room, not even waiting for his ejection to become official.
“I saw it from a distance, but I won’t get in there,” wisecracked Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “I had glasses on.”
Following the 124-115 Rockets’ win, the situation grew personal, according to sources. While getting dressed, Paul received word that his wife, Jada, was verbally confronted by at least one member of Rondo’s family before the buzzer. Paul was visibly upset when he emerged 15 minutes after the game and met his family in the back hallway of the Staples Center, a few feet from the visiting locker room. There was an animated conversation, mostly on Paul’s end, for several minutes.
His brother, CJ Paul, standing nearby, said: “It’s crazy. I’m just trying to calm everybody down. That’s my job.”
Asked if he ever saw his brother react that way on the court, CJ Paul said: “Never. That’s not Chris.”
Rondo left Staples quickly after the game and didn’t speak with the media. Nor did Paul; the Rockets play the Clippers tonight at Staples but Paul’s status for that game is highly questionable. The league will likely rule on him (and Rondo and Ingram) before tipoff. The next lakers’ game is Monday at home against the Spurs.
“I don’t know what it was to get to that point,” said Harden, flummoxed at what caused a disagreement to escalate into violence, “and I don’t care what it was.”
It’s possible that there’s previous bad blood between Paul and Rondo, two fierce competitors, but even if so, rarely do players carry past incidents into a new season. Sources said Paul was caught by surprise by Rondo’s punch, and replays clearly showed he didn’t expect it, which is why the punch landed so squarely.
“As a man, Chris reacted the only way you can react,” said Harden.
It was … different for the NBA, where most disagreements draw little more than angry stares and threatening words and at most, noses touching.
Oh, and some minor details: The Lakers are now 0-2 in the LeBron Era, once again surrendering big points and unable to make the necessary plays in a relatively close game. Harden scored 36 points and Paul had 28 before his ejection; while LeBron had 24. Rondo was three rebounds shy of a triple double before the fight.
Taking their cue from their leader, the Lakers engaged in a team-wide shutdown from making fight comments after the game. LeBron was right in the middle of it, and he claimed ignorance.
“I didn’t see anything,” he said. “I didn’t say anything to my team after the game.”
And the Rockets?
“We all know what happened,” said Anthony. “It was BS."
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