Here’s the full video of the flagrant 2 foul assigned to J.R. Smith last night during New York’s disastrous 92-63 shellacking by the Warriors. Originally, it was a flagrant 1, but for all flagrant fouls referees are now given the opportunity to review the play and can change their original assessment. After reviewing the play, Joey Crawford change it to a flagrant 2, and Smith was done for the night, but not before he went up to Crawford and attempted to explain (calmly, I might add) he was going after the ball and trying to prevent a possible and 1 finish by Barnes. It obviously didn’t deter the flagrant 2 ejection, but it was important because it goes towards refuting the idea the foul was an emotional response to a game that had turned into a blow out.
During the broadcast, I was streaming from the Bay area’s Comcast affiliate, so Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett were calling the game from Oracle Arena. I don’t know which one of them uttered the line, but one of them said, (and I’m paraphrasing here, since I can’t find that telecast in its entirety on YouTube) that JR fouled Barnes with malice.
The Oracle crowds are known— not just for the basketball IQ—but for their loud and sometimes rambunctious cheering. But to utter the word “malice” in a situation like the one last night—where yes, the Knicks were frustrated, but the foul on Barnes wasn’t a preamble to a slugfest that could spill over into the stands—seemed like an attempt to cover for Crawford’s designating the foul a Flagrant 2. Like the refs upped it to a Flagrant 2 because they were worried about losing control of the game and the players involved, not because it was actually, as the NBA stipulates: “an unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent.”
The Knicks were frustrated at getting blown out and not being able to buy a bucket in the second and third quarters, but was the atmosphere so tense it was necessary to nip in the bud any physical play the Knicks might have employed to slow down Golden State and get back into the game? Is this what Stu Jackson and Stern have ordered their referee’s to do?
I tweeted at a writer that covers the Warriors to get an idea of what the stadium was like when the foul occured. I’ll let you know if he gets back to me. It was mid-way through the third quarter when the Knicks were down 24, but it didn’t seem intentional or even very hard—unless you think Smith deliberately knocked Barnes with his elbow, which is hard to determine without having a portal into Smith’s brain like Cusack did Malkovich—but all the same, the foul looked innoucuous to me. Maybe it was a little hard, but I’d rather it was hard and there was no continuation then to be soft and Barnes gets a bucket plus a chance for a three point play.
I wanted to write about the idea that the NBA is a lot less rough and tumble than the 80’s & 90’s when handchecking was legal, and the Pistons/Knicks/Heat all employed physical play to varying levels of success, but that’s as tired a trope as there is, and even though I appreciate hard-nosed defense more, the average fan does not. You probably don’t know this, but a lot of people bitched about the Pistons back in the late 80’s and in a lot of ways they were right: the Pistons deliberately and willfully sought to intimidate opponents with borderline illegal and cheap fouls and tough defense that didn’t allow anyone an easy lay-up.
All this went flashing from neutrotransimitter to neurotransmitter in my brain last night as I watched J.R. Smith convene with a perplexed Mike Woodson before getting ejected. The surprised look on Smith and Woodson’s face told it all: It was weird, and I don’t like what it may foretell about the league going forward. The NBA is a man’s league; that’s why I don’t paricularly enjoy college basketball, where the crowds are more racuous and the players appear to care more, but they’re not fully-grown men. So, while it might be fun to think about a college basketball player’s potential as they’re lighting it up in March, I prefer the moment when that potential is realized, or more accurately, isn’t. The NBA game needs to continue to be about men battling for position while also taking and receiving hard fouls. There’s no Popovich quip about getting “nasty,” if you’re playing in a tamer league where soft play is rewarded. Hard fouls are how you know the players give a crap, and you’re watching the best in not just the country, but the world. When that’s all gone, what do we have left?
[UPDATE: Beckley Mason disagrees with me, and we’ve been going back and forth on this after I tweeted him about it. He seems to think any reduction in head shots is good for the game, so any rules to reduce head trauma should be embraced. My problem with the codification of this idea is the Smith foul from last night. He didn’t intend to glance part of his foul off Barnes’ head, but it happened. He didn’t deserve to be tossed for it. It’s a fine line, and once it’s implemented into the rule books it’ll be akin to the no leaving the bench rule that disqualified Amar’e in that Suns-Spurs series from 2007. That ruling meant the end of the Suns’—very real—title chances, and if someone gets accidentally hit in the head in the course of a hard—but legal—foul in the playoffs, a rigid rule implementation could mean the same thing. Rule changes like this make the NBA’s decisions even more murkier, and referee’s especially so; what we really need is more transparency in flagrant 1 & 2 calls so the conspiracy theorists aren’t given more ammo.]