Having already won at mud wrestling, the Lakers showed Monday they could also beat the Houston Rockets at mudslinging.
At this rate, their most impressive playoff statistic will be found at the bottom of their dry-cleaning bill, but at least they'll still need the uniforms, which is more than the whiny Houston Rockets can probably claim after the Lakers took a two-games-to-none lead with a 98-84 victory at Staples Center.
"Somehow we managed to come through with a win and it surprised us," said Coach Phil Jackson after his team played with Shaquille O'Neal burdened by fouls and Slava Medvedenko burdened by an Achilles' injury.
The Rockets didn't seem quite so shocked, as if they saw it coming, and perhaps they did, considering their fretting about the officials and Jackson's influence on them.
The distractions started with Jeff Van Gundy, the Rockets perpetually harried coach, who before the game implied that Jackson's comments Sunday about mud wrestling were a blatant attempt to influence the NBA.
Which is exactly what he was trying to do, and what's new about that?
"Basically what he's trying to say in his own way is, you have no right to compete against us," Van Gundy said, pretending then to quote Jackson. "Because the fans and the media and the TV want the Lakers in the finals, I expect the league to accommodate us."
The evening ended with Van Gundy essentially claiming that he was right, noting how O'Neal played with four fouls for most of the second half.
"If you think O'Neal is fouling out, you haven't been watching the NBA very long," he said. "There are two reasons he is not fouling out of this game. One, he's a smart player. Two, he's not fouling out of this game."
Jackson heard some of the comments and shrugged.
"He has his opinion," he said.
Does he ever.
It started during Monday's pregame interview session, when the Rocket coach jumped in the mud-wrestling ring. Or is that trough?
"I don't even have to look at the calendar to know it's spring coming on summer, with Phil complaining about the officiating," Van Gundy said. "It's like a rite of passage every spring.... "
The slinging was only starting.
"I'm really surprised some of you guys who are probing journalists, like, if he was a fisherman he'd have you guys mounted on his wall," Van Gundy said. "Because he throws the bait out there, and then you guys scurry over there and throw your mouths on there so he can hook you with this whole idea of physical play, Eastern Conference, Jeff Van Gundy, brutality."
Complaining that Jackson was denigrating the Rockets, Van Gundy then ripped the Lakers.
"Really, Shaq is a finesse player compared to Yao [Ming]," he said sarcastically. "Karl Malone and [Kelvin] Cato, who is more physical? And the patron saint Rick Fox who never touches anybody."
Wait, there's more.
"And then you've got [Kobe] Bryant who is bigger and stronger than [Cuttino] Mobley. And a guy nicknamed Glove for a reason," he said
And then this.
"You've got the flopper [Derek] Fisher, bumping and grinding and playing hard," he said.
The flopper Fisher? Sounds like some sort of newfangled kitchen appliance, no?
Van Gundy kept running the blender.
"Who's a more physical team?" he asked. "If you looked at it, if you guys probed a little bit, we're the guys trying to run, the only physical team in this series is them."
And, finally this.
"And now we will see, by who the league sends in here tonight, when Phil asks the league to jump, we'll see how high they jump," Van Gundy said. "And that's what I've got to say."
Turns out, nobody jumped higher than Bryant, who scored 17 points in the third quarter, highlighted by a spinning, behind-the-back layup that he converted into a three-point play.
And it turns out, the officials did call a closer game. This hurt O'Neal worse than anybody, and it still didn't matter.
This is what happens when Malone is making his open jumpers (seven of 12) and bumping an open Yao.
This is what happens, perhaps, when an opposing coach even bothers to listen to Jackson during the playoffs.
Van Gundy, who battled Jackson when both were in the Eastern Conference several years ago, should know better.
Ignore his words. Forget the refs. Mind your business. The Lakers lead the series with the Rockets by two games, while Jackson leads his running debate with Van Gundy by four jabs, three woofs, and two needles.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.