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PUNCH-UATION MARK KOBE, REGGIE MILLER BRAWL AFTER LAKERS' VICTORY OVER PACERS LAKERS 96, INDIANA 84.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

The combatants in the NBA's marquee fight of the season met again Friday night in a four-quarter bout at Staples Center, and so naturally the evening ended with a great knockout punch.

This time, Brad Miller and Shaquille O'Neal had nothing to do with the violence.

The Lakers knocked off the Indiana Pacers 96-84 for their fifth victory in six games, and just when it seemed everyone would walk away peacefully, bedlam broke out.

The final buzzer already had sounded when Kobe Bryant and Reggie Miller faced off at 20 paces and jawed. Bryant put his arms out in a ``bring- it-on'' stance, then closed the gap and threw a right-handed punch at Miller's head.

Miller lunged for Bryant and tackled him over the scorer's table, and the fight quickly became a free-for-all, with players and coaches from both benches trying to intervene. Somewhere in the mad rush to break it up, referee Ted Bernhardt got knocked to the floor.

When it was over, Bryant both had to be treated for superficial head wounds. Austin Croshere, yanked from behind off the pile by Robert Horry, emerged with a shredded jersey.

And the Lakers emerged a little baffled by the events.

No one saw the fight coming. There were no particular incidents during the game that appeared to presage Bryant's violent actions.

``It looked like Kobe and Miller just lined it up and went after each other,'' coach Phil Jackson said. ``I did talk to him, but I don't have a sense (of why it happened).''

Neither Bryant nor Miller commented afterward. Bryant sent this statement through the Lakers' spokesman: ``If somebody comes at me, I'm going to defend myself,'' he said.

Throwing the punch will earn Bryant a fine and minimum one-game suspension, which means he'll miss Sunday's home game against Houston. Miller is likely to be suspended as well.

A number of players left the bench areas to join the melee, which is typically grounds for a suspension as well; but because the game was over, the league conceivably won't apply the rule. An announcement will come today.

The consensus in the Lakers locker room was that the trash-talking Miller had somehow instigated the incident, and that the Pacers' physical play throughout the game set the stage. Yet there were no scuffles or shouting matches during the game, nothing at all to indicate anything was building.

``I didn't hear anything,'' Horry said. ``I thought they were getting ready to say 'good game' and stuff. Next thing I know, all hell broke loose.''

The fight came just eight days after Bryant punched teammate Samaki Walker on the team bus in Cleveland. Mild-mannered early in his career, Bryant has become increasingly verbal and aggressive on the court, but instigating a fight is a career first.

``I don't know what's going on in that head of his, you have to talk to him about that,'' Horry said. ``Yeah, I'm surprised. But sometimes things happen.''

The fight is just the second of Bryant's career. He once traded blows with Chris Childs, then with the New York Knicks, but Childs threw the first punch.

O'Neal led the Lakers with 33 points on 14-for-21 shooting. Bryant shook off the pesky defense of Ron Artest and scored 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting. The Lakers pulled away late in the game behind 3-pointers from Derek Fisher, Devean George and Horry.

Then came the Main Event, unexpected as it was.

``That was a very physical game and that was the tone set by a number of their players,'' Rick Fox said. ``There comes a point, though, when some of that stuff gets a little overboard. But that's up to the referees to control that.''

Before the game, all eyes were on O'Neal and the other Miller, as in Brad, who fought Jan. 12 in Chicago, when Miller was with the Bulls. Those two managed to avoid any confrontations.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

(color) The Lakers' Kobe Bryant, left, scuffles with the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller, right, after the game Friday as Robert Horry plays peacemaker.

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Box:

GAME RECAP
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 2, 2002
Words:690
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