From New Orleans
Like anybody who spent parts of two weeks hanging around Bourbon Street, the Lakers staggered out of town Thursday night looking very different from when they arrived.
There were rips on their shirts, scrapes on their face, flecks of blood on their fists, a tightness in their stare.
But, man, you should have seen the other guy.
What the first-round playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets sapped from the Lakers' strength, it replenished in spirit, providing basketball's ballerinas with a right jab, a left cross and renewed hope that they might just be tough enough to win a third consecutive title.
As competitors, the Hornets were only briefly scary, falling, 98-80, to the Lakers on Thursday to lose the series, four games to two.
But as sparring partners, the Hornets were consistently spectacular, having awakened a Lakers physical intensity that could fuel them until June.
Perhaps you remember last year's first round against Oklahoma City? This series was that series, a Lakers team being shoved down to a hardwood floor that it transformed into a trampoline.
"This series got our motors going," Ron Artest said late Thursday from underneath a mountain of ice.
This series gave Kobe Bryant his chip again, the star beginning it by losing a fight with a courtside chair but ending it by slugging Emeka Okafor. This series gave Pau Gasol his temper again, as he was ripped by his coach for being timid early, then embraced by everyone Thursday after a driving dunk attempt that knocked two Hornets into next season.
This series gave Andrew Bynum a first step again, as he stood strong enough to finish Thursday with 18 points and 12 rebounds and even a 15-foot jumper that will make future opponents wince. Breaths still need to be held until Bynum can prove his knees will survive through the middle of June, but there is at least reason for the slightest of exhale.
It was a six-game series that felt like a six-round preliminary bout that, in the end, felt just perfect.
"This is the way it has happened for us in the last few years, and it seems to work," Derek Fisher said. "You would like to sweep the early rounds, but if you don't, they help you develop that thick skin, that mentality that you will need for the rest of the playoffs."
The thickest of that skin, of course, belongs to Artest, who turned the corner on a listless regular season to become this series' MVP. It was Artest who fueled the Lakers' renewal after their Game 1 loss with a plea to the team to "go loco," and it was Artest who threw the final punch Thursday when he turned Chris Paul into CP3-ohhhh.
It happened in the final 25 seconds of the third quarter, the Lakers leading by eight, Artest finding himself guarding Paul underneath the Lakers basket. Paul seemed to slip on the baseline, at which point Artest shoved him out of bounds and stole the ball and laid it in.
The New Orleans Arena crowd, which had seemed small and quiet for most of the game, roared in disapproval while Artest, naturally, roared back. For the first time in several games, he flexed his biceps with his trademark strong-man pose.
"It has to be worth it," Artest said of the pose. "And when it happens like that, it's worth it."
After his layup, Artest blocked a shot and Bryant was flagrantly shoved by a frustrated Jason Smith. Two free throws later, the Lakers finished the quarter leading by a dozen and were never seriously threatened again.
Before the fourth quarter, when the public address announcer screamed, "Let's hear it for your Hornets!" … he was answered with crickets.
"The crowd got rattled," Artest said.
They weren't the only ones, the Hornets finally covering up and spending the rest of the night against the ropes. Paul was so beaten down by body blows from Fisher and Steve Blake and any Lakers who wandered near him, he stopped driving the lane, shooting only one free throw on a night he only made four baskets. The rest of the Hornets were so battered, they scored only four second-chance points.
After spending nearly two weeks waxing with pride about his team's determination, Hornets Coach Monty Williams ended it pleading for them to show pride.
"We've got to play it out," he begged them in a sideline huddle late in the game. "We've got to play it out no matter what."
That's what physical does. That's what physical earns. And so the Lakers have been thusly reminded of this, a team that began the series cowering and questioning ending with puffed chests and calling for next. Considering the Dallas Mavericks are bigger and stronger than the Hornets, this is a good thing.
"We have a reputation for being soft," Coach Phil Jackson said. "We obviously don't believe that about ourselves."
Two weeks ago, they might have. Today, they do not. Farewell, Bourbon Street. The Lakers owe you one.