FROM HOUSTON — Two days after Derek Fisher's Flying Elbow, the Lakers showed up in front of the Houston Rockets' red-faced neighbors and did it again.
Sucker-punched them, that is.
Only this time, it was legal, it was fair, and it may have knocked the Rockets out for good.
In their 108-94 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday, the Lakers drew no blood, but plenty of surprise, enough to leave the Rockets pale and shaking.
There was Jordan Farmar, starting for the suspended Fisher, executing a brilliant escape from the late-season doghouse with a growling dozen points, seven assists and one turnover.
"It's a tough business and you've got to be ready," Farmar explained with a dazed smile.
There was Kobe Bryant, changing the tone of the game by blocking Yao Ming's shot twice. "That was something," teammate Trevor Ariza said. "Exactly what we needed."
There was Andrew Bynum, with a pulse and a clue, five rebounds and no turnovers in a dozen minutes.
There was Luke Walton, yeah him, I'm serious, making his two biggest shots of the postseason, five points at the end of the second quarter that started the Lakers on a game-winning, third-period surge.
Then there was the big guy with the bright red mohawk.
He was one of thousands of red-clad fans who crowded the Toyota Center in hopes of urging the outmanned Rockets to a victory.
They waved red light sticks, they screamed at red fireworks, they even roared during the national anthem at the word "rockets."
Their cheerleaders danced in half-shirts that read, "Beat L.A." Their voices grew hoarse from chanting the same thing.
But after the Lakers held the Rockets to 14 points in that third quarter, taking a 12-point lead, the big guy with the bright red mohawk sidled up to me behind the press table.
"This thing is done," he said in a sorrowful Texas twang.
He was talking not about the game, but the series, and even though the Lakers lead only 2-1, this seemed to be a night when the Rockets finally realized they don't have a chance.
"We played a great game!" said Houston's Ron Artest in exasperation.
Two days after showing the Rockets their muscle, the Lakers showed them the depths of their closet, and there seems little Houston can do now.
The victory was typified with a play that would have been a surprise on any other team, with any other player.
There were 7.2 seconds left in that clinching third quarter. Bryant had just sat down, yet the Lakers needed him for one more shot, so he rushed back in.
The crowd was incensed.
"Kobe [expletive] . . . . Kobe [expletive] . . . . "
Most superstars wouldn't have left the bench like that, and most wouldn't hear about it like that.
"Kobe [expletive], Kobe [expletive]."
A couple of seconds later, the Lakers ran an inbounds play near midcourt. Artest blanketed Bryant so much that the officials pulled them apart.
Artest blanketed him again, other Rockets started shoving him, yet somehow Bryant broke free to take the inbounds pass.
By the time he was in a position to shoot, Artest was still in his face, the clock was nearly dry, and he was standing more than 30 feet from the basket.
As the ball fell through the net, the arena fell into a hush, and Bryant fell into a pose, a frozen pose, standing at midcourt strong and glaring and motionless.
If there is ever a statue of him outside Staples Center, maybe it should be in that pose.
"That shot gave me chills," Ariza said.
It later gave Bryant shrugs.
"I knew I had time," he said. "I just pulled up and shot."
It immediately gave Artest a sense of doom.
"I just walked to the bench," he said.
"There was nothing else I could do."
The Rockets are a nice team, but they can't run with the Lakers, they can't shoot with the Lakers and, it turns out, they can't even play defense with the Lakers.
The game ended, appropriately, with Yao limping in pain, his knee and his pride hurt by the pressure he received from Pau Gasol, Bynum and, yes, even Bryant.
The Rockets' marquee player scored 19 points but made only one of six shots in that deciding third quarter, and was never a factor again.
"We just wanted to challenge him," said Bryant. "Even the shots he made were contested shots."
They just wanted to challenge Yao.
They just want to challenge everyone.
That has been their mantra thus far this postseason, challenge the world.
"We don't want to wait for you to attack us," said Ariza. "We want to attack you first."
Challenge the world, and when the world bites back, well, in the next game, they also challenge themselves.
The Lakers did that Friday night. They challenged Farmar, Bynum, Walton, each other, all of them.
It wasn't only about Houston, it was about themselves, and their collective answer echoed in the Texas-size silence that followed them into the night.
"I wanted to see how we responded," said Bryant, smiling.
Now he knows. Now they all know.
The big guy in the bright red mohawk was right.