Dennis Rodman's recent erratic behavior has been a source of irritation to the Los Angeles Lakers.
On Sunday, the eccentric forward got under someone else's skin.
Kobe Bryant scored 29 points, and Shaquille O'Neal had 21 points and nine rebounds as the Lakers beat the New York Knicks 99-91 in a physical battle between two teams attempting to end their losing ways.
The win was just the fourth in nine games for the Lakers (20-11), while the Knicks (16-14) suffered their fifth loss in seven games.
With Rodman often in the middle of things, the game was marred by several physical exchanges, and two New York players Kurt Thomas and Chris Dudley were ejected.
Five technical fouls were called, but none against Rodman.
"He is a smart player, there's no doubt about that," Knicks guard Allan Houston said. "He does things a lot of players wouldn't do."
When asked if Rodman is a dirty player, as Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy claimed, Houston replied, "Yeah, but there are a lot of dirty players out there who go unrecognized. I would rather have a dirty player on my team who does the things you need to win."
Rodman sat out the final 16 minutes of a 111-109 loss to Sacramento on Friday night and missed practice Saturday, but met with coach Kurt Rambis afterward.
Then, he made his second start as a Laker against the Knicks, and played 35 minutes, getting seven points, 12 rebounds and generally creating havoc.
"That's the type of player that he's capable of being," Rambis said. "We walked out of our discussion (Saturday) with smiles on our faces and I believe that all issues are resolved."
For now, anyway. Rambis refused to identify those issues.
"We have to play like this every game," Rodman said.
About the physical nature of the game, Rodman said, "I'm use to it. I used to play in the East for years. It's not a big deal to me."
The Lakers led 72-65 entering the fourth quarter, but the Knicks rallied within three points behind Latrell Sprewell, who scored 13 of his 25 points in the final period.
However, Derek Harper made two 3-point shots, the second with 2:58 left, to give the Lakers an 89-79 lead. The Knicks didn't pose a serious threat after that.
Patrick Ewing had 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, and Houston added 15 points for the Knicks. Glen Rice scored 19 points and Harper had eight points and nine assists for the Lakers.
Twice in the late going, the Knicks intentionally fouled Rodman, a very poor foul shooter. But the strategy backfired as Rodman made four straight free throws.
"When it is time to hit the big shot, the big free throw, I am always there, I am always ready," Rodman said.
Maybe so, but Van Gundy insists the seven-time rebounding champion is a dirty player.
"It always amazes me that he's always the one involved, but it's always the other people who get penalized," Van Gundy said. "He's a dirty player. I mean, he's a great player, but he plays dirty."
Rodman got into a brief scuffle with Thomas in the closing seconds of the third quarter, immediately after Thomas was called for a level-two flagrant foul, which calls for ejection.
A double foul had been called on the pair 1½ minutes earlier.
"I didn't think I should get a foul for being kicked, but I was," Thomas said. "That's something he's done over a number of years. He's always kicking. So I have to defend myself."
"He didn't really get under my skin. But if anyone gets kicked out there, they're going to defend themselves."
Midway through the fourth quarter, O'Neal shoved Dudley to the floor after a dunk that put the Lakers ahead 80-75.
Dudley responded by picking up the ball and throwing it at O'Neal as he headed downcourt. Both players were hit with technical fouls, and Dudley was ejected an automatic rule when a player throws a ball and it hits another player.
"He just grabbed me, he was under me, I had to get him off me," O'Neal said. "No, I wasn't angry at all."
Said Dudley: "Both things were wrong. I didn't think I should be ejected. Someone pushes you down, I just responded in kind."
The Lakers went ahead for good by outscoring the Knicks 36-13 during a span of nearly 12 minutes starting late in the first quarter, giving them a 14-point lead.
The Lakers trailed 27-21 after one quarter of play, but led 50-42 at halftime.
Notes: The game was played before a crowd of 17,505 the 13th sellout in 15 games at the Forum this season. ... Unless the teams meet in the NBA Finals, the game was the final one for the Knicks at the Forum, where they clinched their most recent championship by beating the Lakers in Gme 5 of the NBA Finals in 1973. The Lakers will play at the Staples Center, currently under construction, next season. ... The game was the only regular-season contest between the teams this season. The Knicks beat the Lakers in nine of the previous 12 games between the teams. ... The Knicks are 12-4 at home, but just 4-10 on the road. The Lakers are 11-4 at home and 9-7 on the road. Los Angeles won nine straight games at the Forum before losing their previous two, to Phoenix and Sacramento. By beating the Knicks, the Lakers avoided their first three-game losing streak at home since January 1994.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
for more features.