LeBron James, Isaiah Stewart ejected in Lakers-Pistons fracas
Standing at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds of stocky muscle, Isaiah Stewart is frightening enough when he’s waiting to block shots at the rim.
But it was another matter entirely on Sunday night: Stewart, bloody and enraged, was batting away Pistons assistant coaches as he went after LeBron James, seeking an eye for an eye.
The ugly scene in Little Caesars Arena led to two ejections: one for James, cocking Stewart in his face as they tussled in the lane on a free throw, then one for Stewart charging at him like a raging bull.
The 121-116 win was an improbable comeback but also a needed result for the Lakers (9-9), who are struggling mightily in the first quarter of the season. If not for the dust-up, the enduring memory of the game might have been Anthony Davis blocking No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham twice on the same possession, then scoring on the other end to seal up victory after the Lakers trailed by as much as 17 points.
But the possibility that James faces suspension for drawing blood by striking the 21-year-old might be the biggest concern. It was, in part, a credit to the Lakers that the incident didn’t escalate into a brawl — and that they stayed composed enough to win it.
“You want peacekeepers in those situations,” coach Frank Vogel said. “For the most part I feel like our guys did while obviously forming a wall around a teammate and standing up for each other without it turning into something uglier.”
It has already been one of the rockiest starts to the season for James, who missed 10 of the Lakers’ previous 17 games with ankle and abdominal injuries. He was in the midst of a forgettable night, going 4 for 7 with 10 points and 5 assists and the team down by 12 points. Frustration had been brewing: In the timeout before the play, James was shouting in his own huddle.
With 9:18 remaining in the third quarter, James snapped as Stewart jostled him in the lane. On the second of Anthony Davis’ two free throws, he flung his left arm at Stewart, striking him in the face and drawing blood under his eye and in his mouth. Stewart rose slowly, then aggressively approached James, who appeared to be apologetic after he saw the result of the blow.
James declined to speak to the press after the game. Davis said James’ strike of Stewart was unfortunate, but that Stewart’s reaction — bull-rushing toward the Lakers three distinct times — was over the top.
“Everyone in the league know LeBron’s not a dirty guy,” he said. “In fact when he knew he hit him, as soon as he did it, he looked back at him like, ‘Oh, my bad. I didn’t try to do it.’ He tried to, I don’t know what he was trying to do. But I know nobody on our team, 1 through 15, was having it. We’re gonna protect our brother.”
In Detroit — the market in which the NBA experienced its worst fighting incident — tensions rose quickly. Both teams spilled onto the floor, attempting to separate James and Stewart, while continuing to jaw back and forth. The crowd also raised its voices, as the Pistons’ PA sternly ordered the audience to not throw objects on the court, lest they be ejected and “sent to jail.”
It ultimately cost about 10 minutes of real time, as both teams were resettled onto their benches, and referees reviewed the footage. Ultimately, chief official Scott Foster ejected James and Stewart, while issuing a technical foul to Westbrook for being “an escalator.”
Shouting by the crowd during Foster’s finally tally might have prevented Westbrook from hearing his own punishment. He registered surprise when asked about techincal postgame: “Why’d I get a tech? I didn’t know I had a tech. Wow. That’s interesting. Well, you know, that’s just being Russell, I guess. When you’re Russell Westbrook, they just try to do anything, apparently.”
Fortunately for Westbrook, he finished with a flurry after the incident. He wound up the Lakers with 15 of his 26 points in the final frame, including back-to-back sequences when he hammered a dunk on Hamidou Diallo, then fired off a 3-pointer to cut Detroit’s lead to one.
“What I saw was someone that just showed that will that Russell is famous for,” Vogel said. “That he’s just going to be relentless attacking the basket and hopefully making the right plays every time when he gets there and he just had extreme lock-in on both sides of the ball.”
After a few back-and-forth minutes, the Lakers took a two-point lead after Westbrook and Davis each finished looks at the rim, erasing what had been a 17-point deficit.
Davis put his stamp on things by rejecting Cunningham, once at the 3-point line, then again after he tried to drive to the rim. Davis’ fourth-quarter intensity also translated on the offensive end, where he scored 12 of his 30 points in the last frame.
In the end, the Lakers outscored the Pistons 37-17 in the fourth quarter, a result Davis sealed when he stole a pass from Diallo when Detroit had a chance to tie the game with less than six left. The Lakers also credited a boost from Carmelo Anthony (18 points), who delivered an impassioned address during a second-half huddle and went on to hit five threes. Dwight Howard added 13 points and a pair of threes himself.
The scuffle came at arguably the lowest point of the season so far, as the Lakers could not record defensive stops on the Pistons who entered with a 4-11 record. Defensive struggles that have defined the season so far continued with a disappointing second quarter, as the Lakers allowed Detroit’s bench to open the period shooting 10 for 13, then Jerami Grant closed it by hitting four straight 3-pointers.
The defensive miscues are far from over, but there is something to build on, Davis said.
“We needed it,” he said. “And hopefully this will spark a little fire under our you-know-what to get going. But it feels good to get back in the win column.”
The Lakers play the New York Knicks on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.