Apr. 19, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Robin Lopez (right) confronts Los Angeles Clippers guard (11) Nick Young during an altercation in the second half at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Clippers 93-90. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Basketball is a beautiful game. It's a game that lends itself to creativity and spontaneity. At the NBA level, we are literally watching the biggest and best athletes in the world weave that creativity into the execution of the complex schemes and strategies dreamed up by some of the best basketball minds on the planet. But basketball is far from a finesse game. On the contrary, it is a remarkably physical game, and one which hard fouls and physical contact are a part of. If you have played the game at any level, you have probably been instructed by a coach or parent to make sure you bump that cutter as he comes through the lane. I don't know a basketball fan who hasn't uttered the phrase, "if you're gonna foul him make sure you don't let him score!!" or "Make him earn it at the line." It's a part of the game, and truthfully it's part of what makes the game great. You have fouls to give, and if you think it gives you a chance to win a game, then I have no problem with you using those fouls, particularly if you think the other team can't make the free throws (And by the way, I mean that within the flow of the game and playing actual defense, not the Marc Jackson/Don Nelson hack-a-whoever garbage. That is not basketball, it's a disservice to the fans and the players, and quite frankly I think it's an ineffective strategy anyway).
Momentum is a very real factor in basketball, more so than any other team sport in my opinion. Anybody see the stats on Blake and DJ this season? They lead the league in dunks, and we all know that those plays are energizing, momentum building plays. It's hard to argue against the thought that a big time Blake Griffin dunk off of a pick and roll over the opposing teams center is worth more than two points. As a result, opposing teams have decided that they should take a "no easy buckets" approach with Griffin, taking hard fouls to prevent dunks and make him earn it at the line. On the surface, I do not have a problem with this strategy. Against Denver Wednesday night, Kosta Koufos solidly fouled griffin a few times, collapsing on him, getting his arms across Griffin's as he was attempting to go up, and making sure he was not able to finish the play. These are hard fouls, and no doubt frustrating to Griffin (or any player who receives one). But the fact is they are clean plays, and you have a chance to make your free throws, and make them pay for that strategy (particularly if their starting bigs are relegated to the bench with early foul trouble). The problem is that when it comes to Blake Griffin, those hard fouls are starting to resemble WWE finishing manuevers more than good clean basketball plays. Now we all loved 80's basketball, and there are plenty of people who remember fondly the hard fouls of the "bad boy" pistons, or the physical play of a Lakers-Celtics Finals. But it's not like the players taking the hits back then were cool with the frequent near death experiences they had to deal with because they had the nerve to try and get a layup. Guys were ready to throw-down, and if you fouled somebody that hard, you had to be ready to deal with the ramifications, namely the opposing teams entire roster actively wanting to fight you. Can you imagine if Mchale had clotheslined Magic the way he did Rambis? I am only half joking when I say I think there would be Laker players serving Jail time. Rightfully, the league has tried to crack down on this type of behavior. Fighting is not going to happen in the NBA without serious repercussions; bench players can't even react by standing up and walking onto the floor after a hard foul. The NBA has attempted to distance itself from the 80's era style of play, and yet most would agree that the NBA has never been a better, more interesting league. It wasn't the rough play and hard fouls that made those 80's playoffs compelling. It was the talent on the floor. Sure the "hatred" of the teams added to the drama, but what made those games so great, so memorable, was the brilliance of Magic, Bird, and Isiah.
It's funny that Robin Lopez' attempted decapitation of Blake Griffin last night took place in Phoenix, where Robert Horry famously Hip Checked Steve Nash in the 2007 playoffs. Robert Horry was called a thug, and there was quite an uproar in the national media. Now it was the playoffs, and it was a dirty hit. But it was a hip check. Nash wasn't airborn, he was dribbling down the baseline. The fouls Blake Griffin has begun to endure on a REGULAR BASIS are far worse, career threatening fouls. I watched the replays last night in horror thinking about what could have happened to his knees as he was coming to the ground. Blake and his team mates have done a pretty remarkable job in my opinion of keeping cool heads through all this. The league doesn't want benches clearing , doesn't want punches thrown, and to date the Clippers have managed to hold back. Tempers have been lost on a few occasions, but ultimately, cooler heads have prevailed. That's great for the game and the league, but not so great for Blake Griffin and his team mates, because the flagrant fouls keep on happening.
So what is the solution? Clearly the league is not doing enough to prevent this from happening. The punishment is not severe enough, particularly when the most common offenders are bench players who are relatively unimportant to the game. When Robin Lopez was ejected last night, he had already seen his last minutes anyway, with Marcin Gortat set to check back in for the finish. Similarly, I don't think the Hornets were too distraught when they lost Jason Smith for the night. Maybe the answer is to increase the suspensions and fines for these types of plays? Right now the maximum fine is $35k for a flagrant foul. Maybe Robin Lopez would be less likely to commit that foul if he was going to be suspended for a minimum of 3 games and fined closer to $80k? It's hard to say. The league certainly shouldn't be calling cheap technical fouls after a flagrant, essentially undoing the penalty for the offending team. Many would argue that the Clippers need to take a vigalante justice approach to this problem. In baseball and hockey, these things are self policing. In baseball, if you throw at a team A's best hitter, team B's best hitter can expect to take a fastball near his chin the next time around. Not the leadoff hitter, or the first hitter who happens to come up. Their best guy. Same thing goes in hockey. Would the Sun's be less likely to commit a foul like they did last night if they knew that Kenyon Martin or Reggie Evans was going to take out Steve Nash the next trip up the court? Would Oklahoma City, San Antonio, or the Lakers think twice heading into a game if they knew that Durant, Westbrook, Tony Parker, and Kobe Bryant were in jeopardy if they got unnecessarily physical with Blake Griffin?
I am all for the physical, tough play that makes the game great. I agree with those Blake Griffin critics that say he needs to start making his free throws if he wants teams to stop being SO aggressive with him down low. What I don't agree with is the pattern that is emerging of teams willing to foul Blake Griffin excessively, and the defense that "it's just a part of the game." If the trend continues, could you blame the Clipper players if they took it upon themselves to send a message to the other team? If they let them know that enough is enough and they are not gonna stand for their star player being put at risk every night? I for one will not be able to say I am surprised if it does happen. No good will come from these ridiculous fouls, and it will only get worse in the playoffs. Fans of the game want to see the best against the best, and no one wants a repeat of that 2007 Suns-Spurs Series that saw players suspended for key games. More importantly, no one wants to see any player get hurt, especially as a result of a cheap, dirty foul. The game has never been better, but the pattern of over aggressive fouling on Blake Griffin is a regression for the league. That is not what the game is about. Not anymore.