LOS ANGELES – There would be no scowl from Kobe Bryant(notes) on this night, only a grin. Wrapped in a black terrycloth robe, his feet soaking in an ice bucket in front of his locker, Bryant wore the look of a proud patriarch. His Los Angeles Lakers had bullied the Dallas Mavericks, and when the Mavs finally came unhinged, resorting to the type of cheap, needless fouls that define a lesser team, the Lakers shoved back.
By the end of the Lakers' 110-82 victory, Bryant had watched three of his teammates ejected for retaliating – none of them, surprisingly, named Ron Artest(notes). Each had exited the court to a thunderous roar from the Staples Center crowd and a knowing nod from the Lakers' leader. In Bryant's world, this is all that mattered: The Lakers had stood tough and united.
These aren't the Lakers of last year or two years ago, and they certainly aren't the same skittish group who cowered at the sight of the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals.
"We have different players now," Bryant said, and he didn't mean only the locker nameplates have changed. "Different DNA."
These Lakers are stronger, tougher, healthier, and that should worry the rest of the NBA. Even as the Lakers won the past two championships, there was always a belief they could be pushed around. Artest helped erase some of that label last season, but Kendrick Perkins(notes) again raised the issue just a month ago when he joined the Oklahoma City Thunder. Perkins called Pau Gasol(notes) and Bryant "soft," and most of the league would take exception with only half of that claim.
Nor has the criticism always come from outside the team. Bryant has tried to toughen these Lakers for years, and he hasn't always been patient in the process. That's why he tried to recruit an old sparring partner, Raja Bell(notes), to join him this past summer. After Bell decided to sign with the Utah Jazz, Bryant called Matt Barnes(notes). It's also why he welcomed the signing of Steve Blake(notes). Like Barnes, Blake carries an edge that should serve the Lakers well in the heat of the postseason.
The Mavericks recognize that now if they didn't already. With the game nearly out of their reach after a relentless fourth-quarter flurry from the Lakers, Jason Terry(notes) knocked Blake off balance with a foul, then delivered a hard, two-handed shove to flatten him. Blake quickly popped to his feet and barked in Terry's face. As Terry jawed back, Barnes ran over and shoved him.
There's a line between showing solidarity and showing stupidity, and Barnes has crossed it more than a few times in his career. He received a one-game suspension for escalating the incident – Mavs assistant coach Terry Stotts tried to hold Barnes back, only to be tossed to the ground – but in this case, Bryant didn't mind. Barnes had merely sent a message that needed to be sent.
"That's what we're supposed to do," Bryant said. "You can't let that stuff slide. Period."
"He took a cheap shot at Pau," Bryant said. "Shannon stepped in. He's not going for that [expletive] – simple as that."
The two skirmishes contributed to a wild final quarter that also saw arena security forcibly eject one fan for fighting and later block a woman – reportedly in a state of semi-undress – who tried to rush the Mavs' bench.
The tense atmosphere seemed to suit the Lakers just fine. As it looks now, anyone who wanted to trade punches with the champs should have done it during the season's first four months. After an embarrassing stretch before the All-Star break that saw them lose in Cleveland, the Lakers once again reign as the league's most dominant team. They've lost just one of their past 17 games, and the transformation runs far deeper than a few shoves from three bench players.
Whether by injury or indifference, Artest, Odom and Andrew Bynum(notes) all entered the postseason in previous years as the great unknowns. The Lakers had little idea what to expect from each on a night-to-night basis. That no longer appears to be the case.
As Bynum's health and conditioning have returned, he's shown just how much he can impact a game. Never has the Lakers' young 7-foot center played this strong going into the playoffs. Odom has arguably been the Lakers' most consistent player, a stunning change for someone who used to float through stretches of games. The back-to-back 3-pointers he made in the final quarter to break the Mavs served as the latest evidence for his Sixth Man of the Year campaign. Even Artest has played steadily after a brief detour into the abyss early in the season.
Few teams can match up with the Lakers' length the way the Mavericks can. And yet Mavs coach Rick Carlisle also concedes: "They're stronger than us."
The question now is whether any team in the West stands a puncher's chance if the champs continue to play like this. The Lakers beat the Spurs by 16 last month and face them again on the next-to-last day of the regular season, with the conference's top playoff seed possibly hinging on the game's outcome. The Lakers did have three days of rest before Thursday's victory while the Mavs played the night before, but the Lakers also beat the Mavs in Dallas three weeks ago. The Thunder? They get their chance in 10 days.
No one will need to remind the Lakers of Perkins' comments.
With Blake and Barnes having already left for the locker room, Artest barreled into the lane one last time Thursday. He fended off Peja Stojakovic(notes) with his right arm, then caught a pass solely with his left hand. Somehow, he flipped in a shot in the same motion.
Artest smiled and kissed his right bicep. The crowd roared. He flexed both arms.
Yes, the champs are still here. Stronger, tougher than ever.
- the Lakers