ATLANTA - NBA history so often centers around the Boston Celtics, and that includes playoff suspensions.
In fact, the first thing I thought of when I became aware that Rajon Rondo had made contact with referee Marc Davis Sunday, and was subsequently suspended one game, was the single greatest line ever uttered by an NBA executive.
Said utterer would be, of course, Jan Volk, the general manager of the Celtics in 1987. Reacting to the suspension of Robert Parish for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the glib Volk opined in reference to Detroit center Bill Laimbeer that “the consummate provocateur is still roaming the hardwoods.’’
Clearly, they don’t make GMs like that anymore.
What must be mentioned, however, is that in the context of today’s NBA, Parish would probably have been led off in handcuffs. He had earned that suspension for - pick one - pummeling, clobbering, whaling away at, assaulting, the dastardly Laimbeer in the second period of Game 5, the acclaimed Larry-Stole-The-Ball game.
Having been consummately provoked, no doubt, The Chief began punching Laimbeer with referee Jess Kersey about 5 feet away. What’s amazing about the whole thing was that there was absolutely no call. The suspension came as a result of an ex post facto look at the tape.
But let’s just say that The Chief got his money’s worth. Those teams just flat out didn’t like each other. Why, just one game earlier, both Parish and Larry Bird had been tossed for an altercation with - Guess Who?
Let the record show that this was the first-ever playoff suspension. Further let the record show that the Pistons won Game 6 in the Silverdome, setting up an epic Sunday afternoon Game 7 that ranks with the more memorable in Celtics’ history, including a 36-34 fourth period and the Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas remarks about the whiteness of Larry Bird.
At least the Celtics survived. There were other teams for whom playoff suspensions led to more dire outcomes.
Fast-forward 10 years. The New York Knicks and Miami Heat are engaged in the first of what would be four knock-down, drag-out playoff series in five years. The Knicks are up, 3-1, and apparently en route to a series win when New York’s Charlie Ward and Miami’s P.J. Brown become entangled, and all you-know-what breaks loose.
Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and John Starks leave the bench. Uh-oh. By NBA law, suspensions must be levied. The commissioner decides to split the suspensions between Games 6 and, if necessary, 7. Ewing, Houston, and Ward must sit out Game 6. The Knicks lose, 95-90. Johnson and Starks must miss Game 7. Miami wins the game, 101-90, and the series. The Knicks paid an enormous price for some very human reactions, but the prevailing wisdom is that rules are rules and everyone is supposed to know better than to leave the bench.
Hit that fast-forward button another 10 years. This time it’s San Antonio and Phoenix.
San Antonio leads the series, 2-1, but the Suns are leading Game 4, 100-97, when Robert Horry flings Steve Nash into the scorer’s table in a very malicious manner. There is already bad blood in this series because Nash and San Antonio’s Tony Parker banged heads in an earlier game, leaving Nash a bloody mess.
Horry is properly hit with a flagrant foul and is ejected from the game and suspended for the next one. But outraged Phoenix players Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leave the bench.
It’s a say-it-isn’t-so moment for the Suns, except that it is. Stoudemire and Diaw are suspended for Game 5. The Spurs win that game, as well as the series. To this day the people in Phoenix feel cheated, because the Suns had an excellent chance to go all the way with that team.
Said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni of the ruling, “It really benefits no one. It doesn’t benefit us, obviously. It doesn’t benefit the Suns. It doesn’t benefit the fans. It doesn’t benefit the NBA.’’
Well, it certainly did benefit the Spurs, who went on to win their fourth championship.
Back in the present, Rondo was pretty much doomed the instant he made contact with the official, however minimal. The rule is clear. No sport tolerates players or coaches making contact with officials. And to any Celtics argument that the contact was accidental, the counter-argument is that Rondo put himself in harm’s way by charging after Davis once he said whatever he did to warrant the original technical.
The real issue for the league to consider for future reference is the viability of the foul call on Brandon Bass that precipitated the Rondo outburst. A referee must be a thousand percent certain he’s making the right call before blowing the whistle in that particular situation, when, in the final minute of a playoff game, players are fighting for a loose ball.
This was a game-deciding call. By putting a Hawks player on the free throw line, Davis was pretty much awarding the game to Atlanta with 40.1 seconds to go. Had there been a jump ball won by the Celtics, and had the Celtics scored, it could have turned out differently.
Loose ball scrambles are problematic, always, and it really didn’t look as if Bass had done enough to justify a whistle. The Celtics had a right to be upset.
But being upset doesn’t mean you lose your head. Rondo can’t afford to make the situation worse with a technical, and he surely can’t afford to bump an official.
Anyway, I didn’t notice any provocateurs lurking about, consummate or otherwise. A shaky ref, perhaps, but that’s all.