Physical exam: Rockets-Lakers better

Listen closely to the words of the Lakers and the Rockets. You'll hear them talking about the physical turn their series took in Game 2, but you won't hear them complaining about it. They aren't lobbying insults and accusations of dirty play back and forth like a long tennis rally. They aren't crying to the officials or the league to make it stop. The underlying message is not only has the rough play heightened interest in the series, it's restored the manliness factor to the postseason.

"It's playoff basketball," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "You have to be mentally tough; you have to be physically tough. I don't think there are many plays where guys are intentionally trying to harm guys or injure guys or take guys out."

That's not what the NBA felt, because Stu Jackson decided to suspend Fisher for Friday night's Game 3 for a vicious check Fisher delivered to Houston's Luis Scola in the third quarter of Game 2.

The Rockets didn't decline the penalty, so to speak. Yet not even the victim felt it was necessary to start a crusade to clean up the series.

"It's part of the game," Scola shrugged.

Jackson deemed Kobe Bryant's elbow to Ron Artest a flagrant foul, but not worthy of suspension. Artest was skeptical of the ruling. Still, he admitted, "I kind of respect them elbows."

"I think some of the refs, they let the game get out of hand a little bit," Artest told reporters at practice Thursday. "But that's the playoffs for you. It was a nice and wild atmosphere at the same time."

Only Artest would find something both nice and wild. Is there a combination that fits him better? He can get you 25 points or he can start a major incident. He's also emblematic of why the physical play of today's NBA isn't the same as it was in the 1990s: It's not wrestling; there's basketball skill involved as well. Bryant didn't just give Artest an elbow; he gave Artest and Shane Battier 40 points.

When the New York Knicks got rough and tough in the 1990s it was because they couldn't win beauty pageants. When they slugged it out with the Bulls in their turning-point 1992 playoff series, neither team scored 100 points until Game 6.

That's a far cry from when the Celtics tried to intimidate the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals. Even in the game when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis -- resulting in two free throws for Rambis; that's all, no ejection or suspension -- the final score was 129-125.

Back then Pat Riley complained about the Celtics' roughing up his Lakers. In the 1990s Phil Jackson complained about Pat Riley's Knicks' roughing up his Bulls (the Knicks were "playing football, not basketball," according to Jackson. Jackson was "whining and whimpering," according to Riley).

So the league responded. It instituted flagrant fouls and created automatic suspensions for players who left the bench during altercations.

In 2007 Amare Stoudemire had to miss a crucial playoff game simply for wandering down the sideline at the wrong time, even though he never touched anyone.

League officials have gone too far the other way, and they also haven't changed with the times. One of the reasons the NBA had to crack down on fighting was because it was horrified by the scenes of African-American men fighting each other. It was judged much more harshly than fighting in the overwhelmingly white NHL. And it's not just the different traditions and cultures of the games, not when you hear old-school NBA players and coaches talk about how they used to settle things with their elbows and fists back in the day. No, the league in its desire to make the game mainstream tried to eliminate the image of the Angry Black Man.

Today the climate has changed (and I'm not talking global warming). You don't just see the difference when you watch a presidential news conference; there are subtle differences in everyday life, as captured in this New York Times story pegged to a snapshot of opinions on the 100th day of the Obama administration. (Or for a more humorous take on the state of race relations, check out this bit on The Daily Show.)

What got me about the Times survey was the part that showed 66 percent of respondents thought race relations in this country are generally good. That's up from 25 percent in 1992, in a survey taken around the same time as the riots in Los Angeles that followed the Rodney King beating case verdict. While racism isn't extinct, it doesn't hover over everything in the NBA the way it did before, even as recently as the implementation of the dress code in 2005.

Does the league still need to be as intrusive? Do we need to wait for rulings from Stu Jackson, the NBA's executive vice president of operations, before we can assess which team has the advantage in a series?

"We would rather not have to make these decisions," Jackson said in conference call Thursday. "And we certainly don't want to take away the competitiveness of players or the aggressiveness of players. What we do want is to make sure that the players play the game within the rules. It's important for the safety of the players, the entertainment value of our fans. When we need to intervene, we will."

A full decade of cracking down has had its effect. Jackson, in a conversation before Game 2 of the Rockets-Lakers, noticed how many players stop short of throwing full punches because they're aware of the consequences. Keep the punching penalties in place. Protect airborne players as well.

Just don't wade into every push and shove. The NBA has swung to the side of overly cautious, but has yet to reach the point of uniformity, leaving itself in a gray area that frustrates fans, coaches and players.

"What's the defining rule?" Lakers coach Phil Jackson wondered. "What's the defining judgment? Who knows? It's all arbitrary."

We shouldn't see Artest ejected on a single technical foul in the fourth quarter of a playoff game just because he runs across the court to yell at Bryant.

Even Bryant said, "I don't think he should even have been kicked out for it. It's good, competitive basketball."

Once again the league is living in the troubles of the past, holding Artest to a different standard because he instigated the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills. There's clearly an unwritten rule involved when Artest runs to a conflict; he received a technical foul in a game at Dallas at the start of the season when he rushed in to play peacemaker and separate Yao Ming and Josh Howard.

Believe it or not, Artest was in control when he got to Bryant. If he wanted to come to blows, to not just tell Bryant that he would jack him up but actually demonstrate how, he would have done it. If Artest can exercise that much restraint, can't the officials?

The players are loving it. The heightened animosity even got the subdued Staples Center crowd into it.

Ironically, the best perspective came from the man who delivered the most egregious foul.

"At times it's going to involve more physical play than others," Fisher said. "But compared to our game years ago, I don't think there's a lot of stuff happening that's completely over the top."

As Fisher will see when he watches Game 3, this series hasn't been made worse by the rough stuff. It's been improved.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.