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It’s time for that tough question

After a couple of weeks’ worth of Hoop Dreams, Hollywood’s team spent Monday night living out a different sort of classic.

There Will Be Blood.

On an angry night at Staples Center, blood was everywhere.

It dripped from Shane Battier’s face, leaked from Pau Gasol’s eye, splattered so profusely on the court that it required several ball boys several long minutes to wipe it up.

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The stain left the Lakers’ hardwood, but it remains today on the Lakers’ psyche, seeped into the heads of players who now face an ugly question they thought had already been answered.

Are they tough enough to win an NBA championship?

For one night, they weren’t even tough enough to beat a visiting 53-win team in the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, losing, 100-92, to the Houston Rockets.

Check that verb.

They didn’t lose, they were Pacquiao’ed.

Playing the only way that would give them a chance to win, the outmanned Rockets mugged the Lakers from start to finish, knocking Andrew Bynum to the bench and Gasol into oblivion and the vaunted Lakers cool into thin air.

In the end, the Lakers not only lost their poise, but their fans, the supposedly most passionate group in Los Angeles literally running for the exits in the final minutes, making it an embarrassing night for everyone.

How bad was it?

With 4:54 left in the game and the Lakers trailing by six, Rockets star Yao Ming crumbled on the floor after a collision with Kobe Bryant.

He grabbed his right knee. He cried out in pain. He limped into the tunnel. The Lakers exhaled.

Moments later, after stretching his knee against a wall, Yao ran back on to the court and scored eight points in the final four minutes.

Yeah, it was Paul Pierce, Part II.

“At least he didn’t use a wheelchair!” shouted a fan.

It didn’t matter. It was just as awful.

“I don’t know what our trainer did to Yao, but it was like Rocky coming out there,” said Rockets Coach Rick Adelman.

If so, then the Lakers were the side of beef.

Bryant was harassed by Shane Battier into 17 missed shots out of 31 attempts while barely getting to the rim, shoot only five free throws.

He showed up at the arena with a sore throat, but his inability to control Battier was tough for everyone to swallow.

“That was our goal, make him hit jump shots and not get to the rim,” said Adelman.

Bynum, whose strong presence was absolutely necessary for the Lakers here, committed two quick fouls and wound up playing just 15 minutes with just three rebounds and zero blocked shots.

Then there was Gasol, who had only six points entering the final quarter, and wound up lost amid the swarming defense of Ron Artest and Luis Scola.

The Lakers were such a mess, they needed the forgotten Jordan Farmar, who contributed nearly three good minutes and needs to be used more against the plodding Rockets.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” said Coach Phil Jackson afterward. “We’re OK.”

They sure didn’t look like it, right from the beginning. Less than three minutes into the game, Bynum pulled Yao to the floor. It was a feat of strength, but it was also a feat of foolishness, and it was just the beginning.

Moments later, Scola hit Gasol in the left eye, drawing the game’s first blood.

Several minutes after that, Battier and Lamar Odom tangled under the rim, causing the game’s first stretched-into-oblivion jerseys.

Then, with 1 1/2 minutes left in the first period, Bryant basically said, “It’s on.”

After Battier grabbed the ball from his hands, Bryant pounced on him, knocking him to the ground and drawing a foul and causing the crowd to begin chanting, “Houston [bleeps].”

As if to further the point, in the final seconds of the quarter, Sasha Vujacic whacked Battier with a left jab during a fight for a rebound, opening a huge cut that spilled blood all over his face.

In the second quarter, the fighting left the court and sprawled on to the sidelines.

On one play, a cameraman sitting under the basket was smothered by a tangled Brent Barry and Derek Fisher. Soon thereafter, Trevor Ariza flew into a cameraman on the sideline.

And those were the prettier Lakers plays.

It was a battle throughout, but the Lakers weren’t up to it, falling behind by 11 points at one point and failing to expand a one-point lead that they took midway through the fourth quarter.

Immediately, Vujacic dumbly fouled on a jump shot, leading to a three-point play.

Bryant missed a three-pointer and Yao hit a jumper.

Odom missed two free throws, followed it with a bad shot, and Aaron Brooks countered by hitting a jumper to give the Rockets a six-point lead they never lost.

“We may not win, but our guys will compete from start to finish,” said Adelman.

Well, they did win, and now we have to wonder, will the Lakers find the strength and energy to match them?

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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