LOS ANGELES – No one had grown more weary of hearing Chris Paul's name this season, and now no one had grown more weary of listening to Chris Paul on Wednesday night. As they walked down the floor in the final seconds, Pau Gasol listened to a barrage of disparaging words out of the mouth of the Los Angeles Clippers star, including the oldest-running, most-cutting shot of all.
Yes, Chris Paul called him soft. And, no, Gasol didn't want to hear it. Gasol hasn't forgotten the Lakers traded him for Paul, and he hasn't forgotten most fans – and maybe most coaches and teammates, too – wish the NBA hadn't voided the deal. He doesn't forget it, and maybe this has something to do with him reaching down, patting Paul on the head late Wednesday and sending him into an absolute tirade.
"Don't touch the top of my head like I'm one of your kids," Paul seethed later.
Gasol swore no patronizing intent, but the message was unmistakable: Run along, Chris. Run along, Clippers. It was patronizing and it was the perfect punctuation for a 96-91 victory over the Clippers on a crazy Staples Center evening. The night ended with Bryant trying to calm down his buddy, Paul, only to fight back laughter as Paul ripped into Bryant about Gasol laying his hands on him.
"Pau's not a patronizing guy," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "I'd do some stuff like that, but not him. That's just not him.
"Chris doesn't like that stuff. He's got that little-man complex. I do that to his head all the time. Man, he just hates it. But he's a tough little [expletive], and he's not going to let that [expletive] slide, accident or not."
The Clips had come with a chip, trying to claim a legitimacy for themselves in Los Angeles. They hit hard, talked loudly and challenged the Lakers in ways that needed to be answered and addressed.
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There were six technical fouls, a flagrant, an ejection, bodies tumbling to the floor and skirmishes everywhere. The Lakers had been wobbly with three straight losses, the Clippers wanted badly to lay them out and, eventually, the night would end with Bryant and Paul bickering at midcourt.
"Please," Bryant said. "We've got five championships. … Rivals come from the playoffs."
There was something real in the Staples Center air, something to take, and the Lakers were desperate for a victory. Bryant had watched the Clippers challenge the Lakers everywhere, and watched it inspire something he desperately needed to see out of his teammates: resolve.
As Paul complained to Bryant about Gasol's act in those final seconds, Kobe played the unfamiliar role of peacemaker. It didn't go too well because Gasol simply told him he couldn't care less. For the Lakers captain, it was the proper response. Bryant was like an orchestra leader hearing all the right notes. Gasol played with an aggressive, attacking bent, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Andrew Bynum blocked four shots and scored 19 inside. And most of all, Metta World Peace played with a madman's fury, matching Reggie Evans' crazy with his best performance of the season.
His was a quirky line – three points, five rebounds, seven assists, two steals – but wildly effective. His lone basket turned out to be the biggest of the game, a 3-pointer with 3:30 left.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Bryant had gone to World Peace and told him simply, Whatever you've become, we need the relentless, old Ron Artest.
"You've got to be you," Bryant told him. "You're a feisty [expletive] out on that court."
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"That's who he is," Bryant said. "Anybody who knows Ron, knows he's a sweet person. He's got a big heart. He's very caring. But that's how he is off the court. "But when he goes on that court…"
Bryant opened his left hand and punched it several times with his fist for emphasis. "He has to be the guy that people know Ron Artest as, the Ron Artest from Indiana. Be…that…guy."
And somehow, there was Artest in the middle of it all, an enforcer, irritant, protecting Gasol when Evans kept popping him. getting into it with Paul, Blake Griffin – anyone who dared mess with the Lakers' talent. Kobe was downright befuddled over the way some Clippers kept targeting World Peace, kept trying to drag him into conflict.
"Hey, you better talk to them," Bryant advised the Clippers' Chauncey Billups. "You better tell them to leave Ron alone. Someone is going to get their ass knocked out in front of everybody."
When it was over, Bryant was so proud to say: "There's a couple [expletives] in this league you don't mess with – and Metta is one of them."
These Lakers needed a night where they were no longer fighting Mike Brown's offense, fighting the rim for shots to fall into the basket. They found some trust, found contributions everywhere, and the Big Three of Bryant, Gasol and Bynum played like champions. All hell was breaking loose in the Staples Center, and finally there was someone called Metta World Peace flexing at midcourt, letting the love wash down over him, and it sure looked like the old Ron Artest.
These Clippers are coming for the Lakers, but whatever innocence Pau Gasol claimed, it was no accident when he patted Chris Paul on the head, suggesting the Clips and their point guard run along for now. These are still Kobe Bryant's Lakers, and they still have a championship DNA. All hell broke loose at Staples, and the Lakers had come out tougher, together. There's still some guys you don't mess with in the NBA and they still play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
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