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KNEECAPPING, FLAGRANTS, COVID — NBA PLAYOFFS NOT FOR THE TIMID
Borrowing from UFC rage and football’s dirty element, a league has moved from three-point artistry to physicality that has turned series into wars of attrition. Wild stuff, but good for the game?
Already grieving the loss of his dog, Scott Van Pelt might not survive another day if he keeps watching the NBA playoffs. The ESPN anchor, a 55-year-old fanboy who could host “SportsCenter” in a mascot suit, has been apoplectic lately about sports journalism. To summarize, he doesn’t think it should exist.
“The thing that bums me out about our business is there’s a lot of people that cover sports, and I think, ‘You don’t even like them.’ Like, ‘Do you even like sports?’ ” Van Pelt told a podcaster at The Ringer. “You’re cynical and you’re just — ‘Everything sucks and everybody sucks.’ Like, do something else. Sports is the last thing we’ve got that, typically every day is pretty fun.”
Well, like a child stuck in adolescence, Van Pelt might want to cover his eyes as the basketball postseason spiritually crushes anyone who believes in fairy tales. If the professional media objective is to cover stories as they are delivered — not about “liking” or “disliking” sports — then the NBA has cornered the market on nightly angst, hostility, profanity-filled screams at opponents and officiating volatility. Also creeping in is general weirdness, such as: Golden State coach Steve Kerr testing positive for COVID-19 and summoning assistant Mike Brown to replace him Monday night, though Brown just signed on as the new coach in Sacramento, meaning it’s the closest the Kings will come to rarefied springtime air.
“I felt like we got traded to the Kings overnight,’’ cracked Steph Curry, referencing his team’s shooting struggles in a Game 4 win over Memphis.
Was this a case of karma targeting Kerr, the politician who routinely defends Draymond Green’s violent actions, for turning around a series by introducing unwritten codes to the conversation and yelling at courtside, “Get the f— out of here, Brooks!”? By doing so last week, after Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks clotheslined Gary Payton II, Kerr took control of the league courtroom. He convinced the top cops that Brooks’ sin was more egregious in the series than Green’s and, later, Jordan Poole’s. Lobbying … double-standard justice … cheap shots … this is the new NBA, which echoes a bygone NBA.
Poor Van Pelt. What a hard-knock life. First Otis the Dog dies, then Poole suspiciously twists Ja Morant’s kneecap like a bottlecap and sidelines the floppy-haired turbine — the incident that led to a close Game 4 loss and probably killed off the Grizzlies in a series once projected as seven-game vintage. The Poole stunt came after: (a) Brooks was tossed early in Game 2 and suspended from Game 3 after he fractured Payton’s elbow, and (b) Green was ejected in Game 1 for a jersey-yanking takedown of Brandon Clarke. And that’s just in a Golden State-Memphis series straight from the Octagon, which is being officiated as if the league dearly wants the show-biz-darling Warriors — whose ratings sizzle is back for the first time in three years — to advance deep into June.
You think the Grizzlies would have pulled out this last game, instead of losing 101-98 and falling behind 3 games to 1, if Morant had dueled Steph Curry down the stretch and protected a lead instead of handing it over?
The Celtics and Bucks, meanwhile, could be playing in Lambeau Field and Gillette Stadium. Not sure what possessed steady Al Horford, whose middle name is Journeyman, to inspire a Boston rally on a career night by driving baseline for an animated dunk and planting his arm in the face of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who hit the floor hard. It was ruled merely a technical foul, in a postseason where flagrant fouls are commonplace, and if the Warriors are winning a battle of attrition in the Western Conference, you gather the tougher street gang will advance in the East. I’m thinking Boston, not Milwaukee, a metaphor for rugged life itself.
Normally, Horford forgets a staredown from an opponent. But when Antetokounmpo gave him the stink eye after a first-half dunk, Horford remembered. Why wouldn’t he? It’s the 2022 playoffs. “The way he was looking at me and the way he was going about it, really didn’t sit well with me,” he said. “At that point, I think something switched with me in the game.’’ His Celtics teammate, Marcus Smart, later offered a hand to help Antetokounmpo off the floor, then thought otherwise when Giannis gently kicked him.
The West semifinal should be renamed Code Red. Ever since Kerr won the NBA’s traditional day-to-day perception game — swaying the totality of series-changing calls his way — this incumbents-vs.-upstarts scrum has centered on “the code’’ that players are expected to obey in particularly physical moments. Said Kerr, starting the crossfire last week: “There’s a code that players follow. You never put a guy’s season or career in jeopardy by taking someone out in mid-air and clubbing him across the head and ultimately fracturing Gary’s (left) elbow. He broke the code. Dillon Brooks broke the code.’’
Not that Kerr ever would admit Green, who has “broken the code” often in his career as the 21st-century Dennis Rodman, could have injured Clarke with his dirty tackle. Or that Poole undeniably grabbed Morant’s knee and sent him limping into the tunnel, prompting Ja to reach for his phone and tweet the perfect retort to Kerr: “broke the code.” Subconsciously, did the Warriors have a bounty out for Morant? Or, consciously? Unable to slow his slashes through the lane, the only option was to go rogue, remove Morant from the equation and assume a grip on a series. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, new at verbal gamesmanship, at least told the truth when he addressed the play. “Just trying to be matter-of-fact here. This is what Ja says, this is what our medical team has said after reviewing the play. Ja was playing great, feeling great all game, and the grab of the knee is what triggered the potential injury and why we took Ja out of the game,’’ he said. “Nothing has changed from there in terms of that was the play that triggered this.”
Of course, if a Memphis player had handcuffed the knee of Curry or injury-battered Klay Thompson, the Warriors would have raised holy hell. Such is the hypocrisy of the NBA playoffs, the double standard underlined by media members more sophisticated and less gullible than, say, Van Pelt. But because ESPN wants the Warriors in the Finals more than even Adam Silver does, the network mouthpieces will obediently adopt Golden State’s company line.
“You look at the history of the league, this is how it works. The younger team is trying to take over. They’re competitive,” rationalized Kerr, turning Poole’s cheap shot into a classroom session. “Any time you have those situations, those type of matchups, it gets physical, chippy, whatever you want to call it. So it doesn’t strike me as weird at all.”
But it WAS weird, especially if the Warriors validate their dynasty with a fourth championship and we remember Poole’s ploy as the biggest sports kneecapping since Tonya Harding’s goon made Nancy Kerrigan cry. Morant accused Warriors of breaking the code. And they did break it, truth be told. Rather than acknowledge reality, Kerr demurred and slipped into sly-fox mode. Let the Grizzlies whine, he figured. He’s in the comfort zone, getting what he wanted from the frays. “I don’t take it personally. I watched the play,’’ he said of Poole. “I don’t have a take. There’s nothing to comment on.” Why wouldn’t he ho-hum it? The NBA quickly said it wouldn’t discipline Poole, who played dumb in denying culpability and got away with it.
“It was a basketball play when we doubled him. And I hit the ball, and I was going for the ball. I mean, obviously, you don't want to see anybody get hurt,” he said. “I’m not even that type of player. I respect everybody.”
Just because he respects Morant doesn’t mean he wouldn’t turn his knee like a thermostat. How does one accidentally tug at a knee, an action that requires the flexing of a hand like a claw? Why didn’t the league come down on Poole? Further, why aren’t the media coming down on the league? Is it because they’re pulling for, say, a Warriors-Philadelphia Finals — yes, the Philadelphia Warriors once were a mid-century thing — and they see only what they want to see?
It’s fascinating how the issue at hand — should roughhouse tactics be allowed in the playoffs, like the old days? — only applies when a team is aggrieved. Kerr has waffled, showing bias depending on the scenario, defending Green and Poole while going ballistic on Brooks. The Grizzlies have defended their style as rugged, and they have a right to think they’re being screwed. Green didn’t miss an extra game after his ejection, but Brooks missed most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 with a suspension. Poole wasn’t even called for a common foul. Finally speaking before returning to the lineup, Brooks claimed he’d never heard of “the code,” saying, “I don’t even know what that means in the playoffs. I did not even understand what he meant by that. … It’s in the past. I didn’t mean for it to hurt somebody. If I were to take it back in a moment, I would.”
Welcome to the NBA, Grizz. You’re a small-market team only beginning to earn a national profile, thanks to Morant’s spellbinding presence. You’ll have to wait your turn in the league’s pecking-order machinery. Until then, the country’s 51st-ranked media market — 633,930 homes — might want to grow up as Ja Rule emerges as a national sensation. A local meteorologist, one Joey Sulipeck, shamed the town when he described Green on Twitter with a racist term. It gave Kerr, who has to deal with his own Twittiocy with Draymond, another chance to one-up Memphis. “Does it surprise me that a weatherman would tweet a slur at Draymond in 2022? Not in the slightest bit,” he said. “This is America. This is how we operate.”
They operate that way in Dallas, too. Before Sunday, Chris Paul had claimed this postseason as his personal domain, at 37, dominating fourth quarters like the Point God he is and looking unstoppable in pursuit of his first NBA championship. Then he fouled out in Game 4, with some calls questionable and others his fault. The Suns have allowed the Mavericks to even the series, a risky gambit against Luka Doncic, and Paul also has been dealing with an unsettling incident. As his mother, wife and two kids sat behind the visitors’ bench, two Dallas fans tried to give “unwanted hugs” to Paul’s mother and wife. As a young man in a Doncic jersey was taken by security, Paul confronted him from the Suns bench.
“Hey, hey. I’ll see you later,” yelled Paul, pointing at the fan.
Later, Paul tweeted, “Wanna fine players for saying stuff to the fans but the fans can put they hands on our families ... f--- that!!"
Rather than spend Monday celebrating his NBA Coach of the Year award — a special moment for a widely beloved figure who overcame his wife’s death to reach the league elite — Monty Williams was playing the role of arena manager. Shouldn’t the league have separate seating sections for visiting family members? Coach of the Year? Make him commissioner. "It's a hard one because it's happening more and more,” he said. “The situations are getting to a place now where I really feel like families, who are there to support their loved ones, need to be protected a bit more. Whether or not we have to give these people a section, a suite, something has to be done. Because we can't wait for it to get to a level or two higher, before we do what we need to do. Yesterday was unnecessary.”
The Celtics-Bucks series also resembles rugby, with bruising defense the first priority minus ugly incidents … so far. Another fresh coaching revelation, Ime Udoka, was right when he said a missed call in the final seconds of Game 3 — Smart was awarded two free throws when he should have had three — might cost the Celtics the East semifinal series. “A poor call,” said Udoka, who also said he was going to teach his players to be better floppers. If they’d won, they’d be up 3-1.
The Bucks were upset, too, despite the Game 3 victory. They had only 17 free-throws attempts at home, zero in the final 16:33, while the Celtics were awarded 34. “When you start looking at the numbers, I mean, it’s just, it’s pretty outrageous,” general manager Jon Horst told The Athletic. “(The officials) have to improve. That wasn’t a quality playoff basketball game, and I think officiating played a role in that.”
Stop whining. Start winning. Aren’t the Bucks the defending champs?
I speak for the masses in concluding we’re tired of the yapping. In the end, after we’ve wiped away the blood and caught a collective deep breath, it’s up to the NBA to decide what it wants to be moving forward.
This is definitely something. But is it basketball?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.