The Lakers were on their best behaviour - no ejections, no technical fouls and hardly any trash-talking. What's more, they also played a good game. It was almost boring compared to the fireworks of Game Two, but the Los Angeles Lakers could not care less, working towards a methodical 108-94 victory over the Houston Rockets on a night where no one threw an elbow and nobody sprinted across the court to get in Kobe Bryant's face.
With the suspended Derek Fisher watching Game Three in his room at the team hotel, the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead and regained the home-court advantage on Friday at Toyota Center. Game Four in the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final is in Houston tonight. The match did not end well for the Rockets, with Yao Ming limping off the court in the final minute because of a sore foot and Ron Artest getting ejected shortly thereafter, possibly because of a sore ego.
Artest pushed Pau Gasol as the Lakers' centre-forward moved in for a lay-up or dunk with 43.6 seconds to play. The league will review the play today and determine if a suspension is necessary. That the Lakers played well in Houston was not overly surprising - they were 5-2 here over the last four seasons - but they played a more defensive game. They logged more steals than the Rockets (11-2) and more blocked shots (9-3), besides holding the Rockets to 41.7 per cent shooting.
Bryant did not shoot well, scoring 33 points on 11-for-28 shooting, though he made some important ones, starting with a 33ft three-pointer to end the third quarter that gave the Lakers a 74-62 lead. "We kind of finished the quarter off on the right way," Bryant said. The Lakers outscored the Rockets in the fourth quarter, 34-32, making 17 of 22 free-throw attempts. Bryant's three-pointer with one second left on the shot clock gave the Lakers a 95-84 lead with 2:21 to play, and a dunk by Lamar Odom (16 points, 13 rebounds) off a miss by Bryant effectively sealed it, giving the Lakers a 97-86 lead with 1:22 to play.
In the final seconds, Bryant spoke animatedly with courtside Rockets fans who presumably were not congratulating him on his game. Later, as Yao limped to the bench in obvious pain with 52.5 seconds left, it looked as though the Lakers had finally gained some traction in the series after throwing away the opener at home. "There is nothing to say," the Rockets' Argentine forward Luis Scola said. "They played better, and they deserved to win, and that's why they won."
Yao had 19 points and initially injured his foot near the end of the second quarter. He aggravated it after stepping on players' shoes on two other occasions. He said: "Right now, all I know is that my ankle's sore." Jordan Farmar played well in place of Fisher, collecting 12 points, seven assists and five rebounds, enough for the Lakers coach Phil Jackson to say his game was "stellar". He said: "Fish will come back and claim his spot - that's the way it is - and Jordan's game will certainly be noted."
* With agencies