Artest had tried to play nice. He watched as Bryant clubbed down on his arm once, twice, and the refs stayed silent. But now Bryant was clearing him out with a sharp elbow to the neck. If the officials weren't going to tell Kobe to stop, Artest would do it himself.
He jogged across the court toward Bryant, pointing and yelling. He pressed against Bryant's chest, got in his face and shouted.
You're hitting the wrong guy.
Less than a minute later, Artest was stomping toward the locker room, his eruption ending in ejection, the Houston Rockets' last hopes of a comeback leaving with him. Bryant stepped to the foul line.
You know who you're hitting?
Of course he did.
Already down a game to the Rockets, his Los Angeles Lakers having coughed up another 15-point lead, Kobe Bryant knew exactly whom he was hitting. Bryant needed Artest. He needed the bad blood, the elbows, the taunting. He needed Derek Fisher(notes) to launch himself into the chest of Luis Scola(notes).
Kobe needed all that Wednesday night offered because this is where he finds his fuel. Provoke him at your risk. Challenge him and he lifts his game above that of everyone else, scoring 40 points, delivering a 111-98 victory to send the Lakers and Rockets to Houston with their West semifinal knotted at a game apiece.
"I use it to drive me," Bryant said. "Absolutely."
Bryant embraced the tension, the physicality, because he needed to show his Lakers how to make a stand. They had floated through most of these playoffs, defending when necessary, winning more on talent than effort. That worked in the first round against the Utah Jazz, but the Lakers weren't going to beat the Rockets playing that way. The Rockets know how to take a punch, evidenced again when they spotted the Lakers a 15-point advantage in the first half and then roared back to take the lead.
"It's good for us," Bryant said. "You have a challenge right here in front of you. If you're going to be champions, you have to respond to it. … You have to get after it, by all means."
The Lakers and Rockets got after each other enough to produce five technicals, one flagrant foul and two ejections – and that didn't include Houston coach Rick Adelman banishing Von Wafer(notes) to the locker room after a sideline tantrum. Scola jawed with three different Lakers within a 30-second span late in the third quarter. When the Rockets forward then came out to set a screen for guard Aaron Brooks(notes) on the ensuing possession, Fisher cracked him to the floor with a brutal hit.
Fisher, who cut his head with the hit, was given the more serious of the two flagrant-foul classifications, resulting in an automatic ejection. He said afterward he was merely trying to use the personal foul the Lakers had to give and misjudged the distance between him and Scola.
What he didn't say: Plowing his arm and shoulder into Scola's chest also sent a message.
"We intend to win a championship," Fisher said. "Whatever it takes to do that, we're willing to do."
If that includes the occasional cheap shot, so be it. Midway through the final quarter, TNT's cameras cut to a shot of Stu Jackson, the NBA's VP of basketball operations and czar of discipline, typing furiously on his Blackberry. Between Orlando Magic guard Rafer Alston(notes) swatting Eddie House(notes) in the back of the head to Fisher's crunching foul to Kobe's and Ron-Ron's dustup, Jackson will have a busy 24 hours.
A guess: With the possible exception of adding a fine, the league lets Fisher's ejection count as punishment enough.
The bigger question is whether Bryant's elbow to Artest's throat warrants a suspension. Artest thinks so, and he has precedent to back his claim: When Artest was playing for the Sacramento Kings, he was suspended for a game in a second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs after he raised his forearm and hit Manu Ginobili(notes) in the face.
Bryant, too, is no stranger to Ginobili's face. Two seasons ago, he was suspended for a game after whacking the Spurs guard in the head following a shot. In both cases – like last week's suspension of Magic center Dwight Howard(notes), who caught Samuel Dalembert(notes) in the head with an elbow – Jackson cited "above-the-shoulders contact" and said the act was "not a basketball movement."
If the league decides Bryant's elbow came in the course of trying to establish position and wasn't aimed at Artest's neck, he might get off with a flagrant foul or a fine. The Rockets, however, can point to a pattern of behavior dating to the first game that suggests otherwise. In Game 1, Bryant hogtied Shane Battier(notes) during a scramble for the ball, kneeing him in the process. He also caught Battier with an elbow later in the game.
"If you're tough enough, be tough," Artest said. "Show you're tough. Kobe's great enough to take over games and lead his team. He could have done it without that."
Playoff games, however, are won with mental toughness as much as they are physicality, and this is where Bryant has Artest beat. While Bryant embraces such moments, Artest becomes unhinged when the tension grows too thick. When the teams played in March, Bryant unloaded his fourth-quarter fury on the Rockets after Artest taunted him.
Artest's timing wasn't much better on Wednesday. No Rocket had hurt the Lakers more through the series' first seven quarters than Artest. He was aggressive but efficient and, most important, poised. One well-placed elbow from Bryant changed that.
"I told Kobe, 'You can do whatever you want to do, I'm not reacting,' " Artest said. "I'm going to let the refs control it. But what am I going to do out there: continue to get hit?"
By yelling at Bryant, Artest hoped to draw attention to his complaints at the expense of a technical. His ejection was bang-bang quick, but it's hard to blame veteran ref Joey Crawford for his trigger given Artest's history of erratic behavior.
"I remember when I used to play back home in the neighborhood, there was always games like that," Artest said afterward, delivering another memorable history lesson of life in the Queensbridge projects. "One of my friends was playing … and it was so competitive they broke a piece of leg from a table and they threw it and it went right through his heart and he died, right on the court.
"So I'm accustomed to playing basketball really rough. … I'm used to fighting on the court. That's how I grew up playing basketball. It took me a lot of years to really back off and understand that's not what the league is about."
As for Bryant?
"You've got to have balls," Artest said, "to hit a guy like me in the throat."
No one need ever question the size of Bryant's Spaldings. He lives for these moments, these confrontations. Maybe his elbow earns him a suspension, but the Rockets also know this: If he's on the sideline for Game 3, they have all the more reason to fear Game 4.
Provoke Kobe Bryant at your own peril.