A Swing Shift for Kobe

If this is what a Lakers-Knicks NBA finals would look like, then bring on the Indiana Pacers.

When June comes around, if you want to see boxing at Staples Center just catch Oscar De La Hoya vs. Shane Mosley on the 17th.

That was supposed to be the first fight in the new building. But Chris Childs and Kobe Bryant beat them to the punch Sunday when the two squared off in the third quarter of the Lakers' 106-82 victory.

Why is it almost every major altercation in recent memory involves the New York Knicks?

If it isn't Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning throwing punches (with Knick Coach Jeff Van Gundy clinging to Mourning's leg), it's Charlie Ward getting body-slammed by P.J. Brown or Derek Harper and Jo Jo English rolling into the high-priced seats at Chicago Stadium.

And those are just the playoff games.

The sad thing is, the Knicks finally have a team that could play an entertaining brand of basketball and they still resort to these kind of tactics.

You can find all sorts of ancillary reasons for Sunday's fisticuffs. Maybe the players were trying to impress courtside fan Denzel Washington, fresh off his Oscar-nominated role as boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Perhaps because the Laker Girls broke out a new routine--to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." Closer to home, Laker Coach Phil Jackson thought the officials let the game get out of hand.

What's inescapable is the Knick factor. More often than not, these types of things happen when they're around. The last time they played the Lakers in L.A., Kurt Thomas tackled Dennis Rodman and Chris Dudley threw the ball at Shaquille O'Neal's back from 50 feet away.

Sunday's game was just getting interesting. The Knicks clamped down on defense in the third quarter, cut an 18-point Laker lead in half and were on the verge of setting up a showdown fourth quarter.

Then Childs took exception to what he said was a Bryant elbow while coming through the lane. The two exchanged words, Childs gave Bryant a little head butt and Bryant responded with a forearm to the chest.

Childs threw two punches that hit Bryant, and Bryant swung back and missed.

The punches, whether or not they landed, meant ejections for both players, plus fines and suspensions for at least one game each.

"The game was a good game," Jackson said. "It didn't have to get to that level."

Although the fight energized the crowd, it also caused the Lakers to sharpen their knives and stick them in the Knicks. Glen Rice, who was practically invisible for a game and a half, made two jumpers to put the Lakers ahead by 15. It wasn't close again.

So the Lakers continue to roll along, winners of nine games in a row, 28 out of their last 29, and people such as Childs are starting to think that someone needs to keep them in check.

"I think it comes to a point where they're playing so well everything is supposed to come easy for them," Childs said. "Even when Michael [Jordan] was playing, he didn't like a lot of guys up on his chest trying to guard him as best as possible. The [Lakers] are talented players, but it's not going to be a walk in the park."

No one's expecting the rest of the NBA to lay out the picnic blanket for the Lakers. They probably could use a good elbow now and then to keep them alert.

As soon as Childs threw that first punch, he took it to another level. The Knicks' level.

"Physical's one thing; throwing a punch is another," Jackson said. "That's over the edge.

"There's a difference between physical and dirty, and that was just sheer dirtiness," O'Neal said.

O'Neal lost control twice this season, shoving Portland's Jermaine O'Neal and wrestling Houston's Charles Barkley in games in November. But Jackson talked to O'Neal, let him know he was too important to be ejected and suspended, and that put an end to that.

Here was Childs--in a game the Knicks desperately needed to win to remain within a half-game of the Miami Heat in the race for the Atlantic Division championship--throwing the first punch.

If they can lose control now, they can definitely lose control during the finals, when the stakes are higher, the pressure greater and players build animosity after playing each other four or five games in a row.

The players and coaches have changed over the years. The attitude has not. Childs hasn't thrown punches before, but he sure stirs things up.

Bryant didn't have to throw a punch to retaliate. Perhaps if he had thought more clearly, he wouldn't have.

However, his track record--no previous fines or suspensions--suggests that fighting is not his normal routine.

"Everyone knows Kobe's a clean-type kid," O'Neal said. "The guy hit him first. You expect that, when somebody punches us in our face on national TV."

Do we really need to see a rematch in June?

From a basketball standpoint, the Knicks don't look ready to challenge the Lakers.

The only curiosity would be to see how Van Gundy would look while clinging to O'Neal's ankle.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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