LeBron James’s first home game as a Laker began with all the expected pageantry. Fans wore his jersey and swarmed the grounds outside Staples Center. He stepped onto the floor to a scripted video featuring voiceover work from Ice Cube. And when he was officially introduced in the starting lineup, the cheer from the crowd was so loud that it drowned out the in-arena announcer.
Then a fight broke out. And all of a sudden it was a very different kind of night.
The Rockets were up, 109-108, in the fourth quarter when Brandon Ingram was called for a foul on James Harden. That’s when things got heated. Harden complained about not getting the and-one. Ingram shoved Harden, was called for a technical foul, and then began jawing at him while a referee half their size tried to separate the two. Harden looked confused, but Ingram kept talking to him until Lance Stephenson pulled him away. Later in the locker room, Stephenson said he advised Ingram and the rest of the Lakers not to “fall for [the Rockets] tricks.”
“I guess we fell for them,” Stephenson admitted.
As Ingram was being settled down by his teammates after the incident, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul were in a confrontation near the foul line. Paul poked at Rondo’s face. Rondo threw a punch. Paul retaliated. Ingram re-entered the fray and threw a punch, too. James intervened and pulled Paul off to the side while the referees attempted to handle the chaos.
“I mean, I just tried to calm things down,” James said after the game, surrounded by a crush of reporters so large that several people were standing on ladders to get a view of him. More than 250 credentials were issued to reporters from 15 countries and territories for Saturday’s game. They came for LeBron but got a very different kind of show. “Play basketball,” James continued. “That’s all.”
It took a long while before the game resumed, and the energy in the arena changed considerably during that time, with the crowd alternating between chanting “Rondo” and “Houston sucks.” With Paul, Ingram, and Rondo ejected, Houston eventually won 124-115. In the press conference afterward, Lakers coach Luke Walton talked about his team trying to regain their composure. That didn’t happen. He called the fight “unfortunate.” Carmelo Anthony went a lot further.
“It was bullshit, plain and simple, unacceptable” Anthony said postgame. “You don’t even see that in the streets.”
"It was bullshit. Plain and simple, unacceptable. We all know what happened."— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) October 21, 2018
Carmelo weighs in on tonight's Rockets/Lakers fight. pic.twitter.com/HYGQg46yla
Anthony was talking about Rondo, and the allegation that the Lakers point guard spit in Paul’s face. In the hallway after the game, Paul—who dressed quickly and left the locker room without talking to reporters—was seen in an animated conversation with Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni. When asked what precipitated the incident between the two point guards, D’Antoni said “I’m sure some spit was thrown, and when you cross the line that happens”—implying Rondo spit at Paul, prompting him to retaliate with a finger to Rondo’s face. Several Rockets backed up that version of events while none of the Lakers who spoke after the game would confirm it. From one angle it didn’t appear that Rondo spit on Paul—or, if he did, that it might not have been intentional. But from another angle that surfaced Sunday morning as the one the Rockets were sending to the league, something does appear to come out of Rondo’s mouth.
This is one of the pieces of video the Rockets are sending the league office as the NBA investigates last night's fight at Staples Center and determines discipline. pic.twitter.com/YKw7JF13cP— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) October 21, 2018
The two have a history of altercations. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that, after reviewing the tape, Lakers officials stood by their defense of Rondo. The Athletic’s Shams Charania also reported that one of Rondo’s family members confronted Paul’s wife after the game.
Chris was irate about this, shouting about it in the locker room afterward. https://t.co/8qbGRMFfBX— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) October 21, 2018
The only thing anyone seemed to agree on in the post-fight fog was that Ingram’s involvement in the proceedings was unusual. Ingram is generally regarded around the league as likable and soft-spoken. Clint Capela called it “weird,” while Eric Gordon said it was “wild.” In one of the videos, Ingram appears to be yelling in the face of referee Jason Phillips before Stephenson pulls him away.
Walton said he thought tensions escalated when James Ennis was called for a flagrant-1 foul on Josh Hart earlier in the fourth quarter. Like Paul, Ingram didn’t speak to the media following the game. Neither did Rondo. When an ESPN cameraman tried to get a shot of Ingram sitting at his locker, a Lakers PR person directed him to turn around.
Meanwhile, according to ESPN, the league immediately began investigating the incident and suspensions could be handed down quickly. The Rockets play the Clippers at Staples Center on Sunday. That should be pretty chill. In the Houston locker room long after the game ended, a reporter asked Gerald Green “what the hell happened out there?”
“We won,” was all Green replied.
Kevin O’Connor and Jason Gallagher contributed to this report.