Lakers vs. Rockets: Has the Tension Died Down?

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IMay 10, 2009

HOUSTON - MAY 08:  Guard Ron Artest #96 of the Houston Rockets commits a flagrant foul on Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on May 8, 2009 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

There's an old Chris Rock joke about what it's like being a young black man in New York City. Rock says when he walks down the street he sees old white ladies looking at him through their windows dialing 9-1 on their telephones, with their finger on the 1-button, ready to call the police.

Now you know how Ron Artest feels on the basketball court.

Artest did nothing to deserve either of his ejections in the Rockets' series with the Lakers. It was probably just a case of the refs protecting Artest from escalating things.

In both instances, the games were pretty much decided at that point, so that might have also had something to do with the ejections—zebras just trying to act preemptively.

This is the NBA's version of "shoot first and ask questions later"; call it "eject first and downgrade later."

It's just the way things will be with Artest until his playing days over and he's lost the right to appeal.

So far we've seen a number of technical fouls, a few ejections, and a suspension, but it appears after Sunday's "Mother's Day Massacre" the series may have only just passed the halfway point.

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This particular series has reminded many of the NBA's glory days of the 1980s—when every possession mattered. Not just in this series but in almost all of the series. It's nice to know that even in these times where the average NBA salary is more than $5.5 million that these guys still care.

While Game 4 didn't feature the chippy-ness of the first three games, the fact that the Rockets humiliated and demoralized the Lakers will only increase the intensity of Tuesday night's Game 5.

In the 48 hours before the next game, the Lakers will have to deal with another round of questions about their toughness and ability to win a championship.

Forget about the Lakers' run at the end of the game to make the score look like the game was closer than it really was. They were undoubtedly punched in their collective mouths.

Will they have the maturity and guile to counter within the rules of the game?

The Lakers don't really have an enforcer. Excluding the Kung-Fu master, DJ Mbenga, they don't have anyone you'd want to take with you into a street fight.

They do have plenty of guys that you might want to duet with at a karaoke bar though.

I'm not saying they're too soft. I'm saying they're too polite. There's nobody on this team other than Kobe Bryant that will grab a teammate by the collar and ask him "What the (expletive) were you thinking?"—let alone someone who would do it to an opponent.

Instead, they rely on irritants like Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic. If something does go down in this series, you can guarantee that Vujacic will probably be in the middle of it.

Kobe Bryant and Shane Battier are both smart enough to try something when the refs aren't looking in an attempt to bait the other into getting caught instead.

Early on in the series, it was looking like Von Wafer and Vujacic might throw down. But the referees have quickly taken control of the series.

Wafer, who will be a free agent at season's end, understands what's at stake for him. After his banishment in Game 2, he seems to have settled down.

Now that we're down to a best-of-three series, it will be interesting to see if there's a player on either team dumb enough to let his team down by throwing a punch or swinging an elbow.

But that might not be such a bad thing after all.

Three players have been suspended in these playoffs so far (Dwight Howard, Rafer Alston, and Derek Fisher) and in all three instances, their teams won without their missing player.

Make no mistake: the Lakers are still in control of the series. All they had to do was win one game in Houston to regain home court advantage and they did it. They were playing with house money.

The problem is they played like it.

And that's why people continuously question their mental toughness. They had a wounded dog in their midst and they allowed him to regain his footing.

They had a golden opportunity to prove that all of the talk about their unimpressive playoff showing up to this point isn't accurate.

We're watching what could be the beginnings of a great rivalry, but could also be just another case of all bark and no bite.

Compare this series to the Lakers and Kings from the earlier part of the decade and it isn't even close. Most people forget that things were so heated between the two teams that the incident involving Doug Christie and Rick Fox happened during a preseason game.

After Sunday's game the Lakers/Rockets series became a lot more interesting.

The big questions are whether or not it will be decided by the players or the guys with the whistles, and whether we've seen the last of the flying elbows, ejections, and suspensions?

All I know is that the Rockets have nothing to lose right now and they're playing like it, while the Lakers have everything to lose and they're playing like it as well.