HOUSTON — It was double-feature night at the NBA Fight Club on Wednesday:
Shaquille O'Neal vs. Charles Barkley, for the league heavyweight championship.
The Lakers vs. the Houston Rockets, for a middleweight regular-season NBA victory.
Neither contest was pretty, but O'Neal got a draw and the Lakers won on points, 89-88.
Of course, NBA Senior Vice President Rod Thorn might have a dimmer view when he's through suspending and fining, because O'Neal is likely to receive a good measure of both after landing a glancing left punch to Barkley in the middle of a short, ugly tussle early in the second quarter.
"It's obvious he didn't want to play tonight," O'Neal said of Barkley, who said a frustrated Barkley instigated the brawl by throwing the basketball off of O'Neal's face after the two exchanged glares and shoves.
"He wasn't doing that much. . . . He did one of his Charles Barkley-like stupid things and I just reacted. Any time a person gets hit in the face with the ball, nine of 10 times he'll probably just react."
The headline bout at Compaq Center was precipitated by Brian Shaw fouling Barkley on the low post, with O'Neal making sure Barkley's shot was blocked.
The Lakers led, 30-26, at the time, and both Barkley and O'Neal, who had no previous violent history with each other, led with their bodies thereafter.
O'Neal bumped Barkley on the head, Barkley swung his elbows to answer, O'Neal pushed him back, and then Barkley fired the basketball into O'Neal's face.
Then it was fight time, on national television, with two of the league's biggest names and biggest bodies getting ready to rumble.
"He was doing all that wild monkey [stuff], throwing [elbows], acting crazy," said O'Neal, who suffered his second ejection in less than a week after receiving two technicals Saturday night in Portland.
"I think that was a tactic to get me out of the game, and it worked. I'll probably have to be a little smarter next time, just wait to get him back later."
O'Neal fired a lead left, which was countered by an impressive Barkley lift-and-flip move, sending O'Neal onto his back and allowing Barkley to land a few shots while they were on the floor.
"Can't let nobody hit me," Barkley said as he left the arena before the game was over.
O'Neal said he only toppled over because other players got involved.
"He was very lucky those guys grabbed me," O'Neal said. "Very lucky. . . . I could've gotten all of my frustrations out. He's a very lucky man."
With both players long gone, the Lakers chopped out the victory over the winless Rockets when rookie Steve Francis could not get a potential game-winning shot off before the final buzzer sounded.
Ron Harper shielded Francis, who led Houston with 26 points, from a clean drive to the basket on the final play, which Laker Coach Phil Jackson described with a wink:
"He fouled him very effectively."
What did winning on the road against a presumed conference rival, without O'Neal for most of the game and Kobe Bryant for all of it, tell Jackson about his players?
"Tells me we were pretty lucky tonight," Jackson said.
Meanwhile, the Lakers, who got 24 points from Glen Rice (20 in the first half) and 14 points and 12 rebounds from A.C. Green, made 20 of 24 free throws and lifted their record to a surprising 5-1, and Houston stunningly dropped to 0-5.
And the Lakers are now 1-1 in O'Neal-ejection games, something Jackson has no intention of testing any further, though it's almost certain O'Neal and perhaps Barkley will be suspended for Friday night's rematch at Staples Center.
"You can't act like that," Jackson said of his center. "If you act like that, they can run you out of any game just be creating a situation. That's true meat for other teams to get you ejected."
Does Jackson believe that O'Neal, who been in the news all week for complaining about the hard fouls he receives and for his free-throw woes, is acting out of building frustration about a host of things?
"Oh, it's obvious he's got some kind of frustration if he reacts at this level so quickly," Jackson said. "I don't think of Shaq as a person with a trigger temper."
Despite the frequency of his disqualifications, O'Neal's teammates said they were not concerned about his broiling emotions continuing to cause problems.
"This is not normal behavior for Shaquille," said guard Derek Fisher, one of four Lakers in double-digit scoring. "So I don't really feel like we're any danger of him continuing to do that.
"He knows how important he is for the basketball team. Shaq, he takes on more pressure than people think for this basketball team. He really feels it's his responsibility to take us where we're supposed to go.
"So whether it's missing free throws or getting ejected from the game or just not playing well, he takes that personally. . . . He's a guy who understands where he is, and he'll get it worked out."
O'Neal, who had six points and seven rebounds before the ejection, said he was only reacting to Barkley, not any of the other issues.
"That has nothing to do with me getting frustrated, because I'm ready to play," O'Neal said. "I don't let things like that carry over."
Until, perhaps, the next time he and Barkley are allowed to be on a court together, and Round 2 clangs to a start.
* DON'T HORRY BACK: Jackson says forward isn't psychologically ready to return, although Horry says playing with pain in his knee would be nothing new. Page 5