HONOLULU — Like he does on nearly every possession, Lakers center Roy Hibbert locked his eyes in on everything he could to ensure another defensive stop. He guarded the painted area. He communicated with Kobe Bryant about defensive rotations. Hibbert scanned the court in case he needed to slide over to help a teammates’ man.
Then, in the corner of his eye, Hibbert saw something that made him sprint into action. Lakers forward Julius Randle just fronted Utah forward Trevor Booker along the right elbow to prevent him from cutting into the lane. Booker immediately pushed him. Then, Hibbert confronted Booker, who immediately swung a punch.
Referees quickly assessed Randle with a foul, Hibbert with a technical and Booker with an ejection with 7:14 left in the third quarter of the Lakers’ eventual 117-114 overtime loss to Utah Jazz on Tuesday at Stan Sheriff Center. Hibbert initially smiled at Booker’s attempted punch, but he hardly showed that expression when he was asked to talk about him afterwards.
“I ain’t worried about him,” Hibbert said of Booker, who also had been contentious with each other in the Lakers’ preseason loss to Utah on Sunday. “I’m not going to speak on that.”
Instead, Hibbert spoke on why he hardly thought twice about confronting Booker despite Randle immediately walking away from the push to prevent the situation from escalating.
“We play together,” said Hibbert, who posted 16 points on 4-of-11 shooting and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes. “He’s the face of this team for the future. “Anybody from the starting five to the guys on the bench, we play as a team and I have everybody’s back.”
That reality brought a smile to Randle’s face.
“Roy has told me all year he has my back,” Randle said. “Whatever it is, he has my back. So I’m not surprised. But I’m definitely glad he did.”
It also appeared Lakers had Hibbert’s back in a sequence coach Byron Scott chalked up to “NBA basketball” where “guys get a little chippy every now and then.”
Following Booker’s punch, Hibbert attempted to run after him. But Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Kobe Bryant soon held him back. Randle also raced cross court and walked back with Hibbert to the team’s huddle on the other side of the court during the officials’ review.
“Basketball and sports in general is such an emotional sport,” Bryant said. “I think basketball in particular because you’re directly in confrontation with somebody else. Sometimes emotion gets the best of a player and it happens. It’s not what you want to see.”
And yet, that instant seemed to spark the Lakers. Although Hibbert mostly credited the presence of Bryant (13 points on 5-of-9 shooting) and Metta World Peace (seven points, four rebounds), Bryant made it a point to set up Hibbert inside on the next two possessions. Randle attacked and defended with more aggressiveness. Scott attributed that reaction to the team’s “camaraderie” during training camp and off-season workouts.
“You always find a silver lining in anything,” Bryant said. “It’s certainly not something you want a kid watching. But you learn. We all make mistakes and we all have our emotions get the best of us sometimes. It’s part of the game.”
And for Hibbert, it appears it will be part of the game for him to stand up for any teammate who encounters a confrontational opponent. Likewise, it appears part of the game that the Lakers will ensure Hibbert does not go overboard with his protection.
“That’s what normally happens,” Hibbert said. “I’m happy I have teammates that will have my back.”