If you were watching the end of the Phoenix/San Antonio game tonight you already know the story of the game isn't going to be the Suns' win on the opposing court but Robert Horry's flagrant foul on Steve Nash in the closing seconds of the game. (If you weren't watching I'm sure you can find video clips everywhere. They don't have them up yet as I'm typing this.) Horry was ejected and may face further penalties. A couple of players appeared to leave the Phoenix bench which would call for a mandatory suspension as well should the league enforce the rule.
I hate it when writers try to judge the impact of a foul like this from their keyboards. I'll admit it straight out...I'm a blogger. I didn't give the offending chuck and I certainly didn't take it. For all I know it probably would have knocked me senseless. That said, while the impact seemed significant in real time it didn't look that bad from the replays. (Hold on Phoenix fans. I'm not dissing you or your prize point guard entirely. Bear with me.) Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was probably a flagrant in that situation (open court, one-on-one, against the sideboards, in an obvious intentional foul scenario to regain possession). But it was the situation as much as the impact that determined that. This wasn't a Kurt Rambis clothesline by any means. I guarantee you NBA players take similar smacks 92 times a game trying to rub off a screen in the lane. It's just better disguised. The fact that it was a bigger man on the superstar point guard made things worse, as did the fact that Nash went down like a shot.
I'm not arguing the foul should have been called differently than it was. Phoenix fans, I completely understand you screaming bloody murder and calling for Horry's head. There's evidence supporting that and if it were my team that's probably what I'd be doing. San Antonio fans, I completely understand you saying this was simply a hard, message-sending foul in a tough game in a tough series that has three more games yet to play. Guess what? There's evidence supporting that and if it were my team that's probably what I'd be doing also.
This is the whole point. A point blank view of the foul as it happens isn't a magic bullet. Neither is video tape, as much as we'd like to think it is. Things can look different depending on your perspective. Most of the time, short of "Rambisizing" someone, the variables prohibit a definitive call, especially in cases where motive and impact are part of the equation.
This, my friends, is what worries me about the new kinder, gentler NBA. Conventional wisdom says that making penalties harsher will cut down on violent fouls. It doesn't. They still happen and the more crucial the game the more likely they are to occur. All the harsher penalty does is put more onus on the league to sort out those impossibly convoluted variables because now so much more rides on their decision.
Obviously nobody condones escalation to the point of brawling. But in the "old days" it would have been up to the Suns to rectify the situation in their next game. If and when they did, and if and when they conquered because of it, they would emerge knowing that they truly deserved the victory. Is this a perfect solution? Of course not. Sometimes things get out of hand. But that happens rarely. And short of a suspension-inducing brawl the issue ends up being decided on the court, by the players. As it stands now the situation will be decided by the league office and some of those players may not see the floor, possibly affecting the outcome of the series. This will cause the fans of whichever team gets the stiffest penalty to vent their collective spleens the entire summer and beyond...taking the focus away from the court entirely. Somehow that doesn't seem as appealing. It ain't basketball. Some will argue a forearm shiver isn't basketball either and they're right. But it's a lot closer than this.
I fear we're sliding down a slippery slope here. Truehoop ran an interesting article yesterday about the toughness of playoff basketball and the lengths players will go to in order to gain an advantage. Some of the stuff is mind-blowing. But it happens. Henry's open question was, "Where is the line?" and it's a good one. At what point does the league stop enforcing and leave it to the players. How flagrant is flagrant and how are those determinations made? Hard, fast rules never cover enough ground to be effective (as tonight's incident is going to show) but judging on a case-by-case basis--a.k.a. the "I know pornography when I see it" argument--is wholly unsatisfactory when you can't even be certain what you're seeing.
One thing I know for sure. If the league continues down this path they are absolutely going to have to create and enforce rules governing flopping as much as they enforce rules on flagrant fouls. If they're going to judge based on video evidence they have to ask questions like how much of Steve Nash's initial reaction was genuine, how much his momentum and relative size contributed to the severity of the impact, what role the presence of the media table sideboards played in the visual impact of the foul, whether the amount of time he spent on the ground was appropriate, and so on. (How do you even judge those things, by the way?) Tonight's incident was probably not a big deal along those lines because most things went according to form. But you can believe people who would go to lengths like the ones described in Henry's article to gain an advantage would have little problem exaggerating an infraction against them to gain a similar advantage. And the tougher the penalties against those infractions (and the more willing the league office is to react to them) the more incentive there is to exaggerate. Soccer has among the stiffest penalty systems of any sport on the planet. You either get a warning and then get tossed or you get tossed immediately, and possibly for the next game as well. Anyone who's ever watched fifteen minutes of the World Cup knows that those guys are the biggest fakers on the planet when it comes to post-foul injuries. And frankly to my silly, American eyes it's a huge disincentive to watch. If the NBA even gets a quarter of the way down that road people will leave in droves because to us that's...not...sports. It would clearly be better to leave the judgment and retribution on the floor with the players than get anywhere close to that. Given that the rules are inadequate and the case-by-case judging so tricky, I'm not sure that wouldn't be the better option anyway.
For now, I guess David Stern and company get to play "sideline dad" to the league, making a judgment call about whether to stop the game when junior gets hit or just say, "It wasn't that bad, son, get up and shake it off!" Good luck to them in making that decision. Consider this, though: How many more people are going to tune in to see what happens next--and who emerges victorious--if Horry isn't suspended and the games go on as normal? In a semi-borderline case like this isn't that all just part of the drama?