The play of the game in today's exciting meeting between the Clippers and Thunder was clearly the Clippers' seven point possession in the final two minutes. You can watch basketball the rest of your life, and you may never see another seven point possession (though it's worth noting that this one was a missed Blake Griffin free throw away from being an eight point possession). You can string together a any series of unlikely events you want, a clear path foul followed by a traditional three point play followed by an offensive rebound on a missed free throw followed by a three pointer, whatever, but those things rarely in fact happen. Four point plays, sure (especially with Jamal Crawford around). The occasional five or even six point play, why not? But seven points in a trip is more than three scores, and it almost never happens. The fact that it turned a six point deficit into the Clippers' first lead of the game in the final two minutes makes it all the more amazing. The fact that the Clippers then went on to lose the game makes it all a bit bitter.
In case you missed it (though I know you didn't) as Matt Barnes was sinking a three pointer, Serge Ibaka committed a flagrant foul on Blake Griffin, punching him in the groin as the two were battling for rebounding position. A common foul off the ball simultaneous to a made three results in just one free throw, not two, but a flagrant foul is always a flagrant foul, and always results in two free throws and the ball. Griffin hit one of two (depriving us of the even more rare eight point possession) and the Clippers then got a second three pointer on the same trip, this one from Crawford after a couple of offensive rebounds.
But the real point of this post is to discuss whether the referees got the call correct. Should this have been a flagrant foul-penalty (1), or a flagrant foul-penalty (2)? The only difference in terms of the penalty, in case you are wondering, is that in the case of the penalty (2), the player committing the foul is automatically ejected (and there is also a difference in terms of the penalty points tracked by the league office over the course of the season). As for the game itself, both types of flagrant fouls result in two free throws and the ball out of bounds.
So let's look at the play, and try to ascertain what should have been called.
To do this right, we'll need some definitions. From the Official Rules of the NBA:
RULE NO. 12-FOULS AND PENALTIES; B. Personal Foul; Section IV-Flagrant Foul; a. If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary, a flagrant foul-penalty (1) will be assessed.
RULE NO. 12-FOULS AND PENALTIES; B. Personal Foul; Section IV-Flagrant Foul; b. If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary and excessive, a flagrant foul-penalty (2) will be assessed.
and from dictionary.com:
ex·ces·sive [ik-ses-iv] adjective going beyond the usual, necessary, or proper limit or degree.
Now, as it happens, my favorite word in this section of the rule book is actually unnecessary, which is, as far as I can tell, completely useless in this rule. I'm always reminded of the legendary dodgeball coach Patches O'Houlihan when he said "Necessary? Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine? No, but I do it anyway because it's sterile and I like the taste." One man's necessity is another man's urine drinking, but more to the point, how exactly is "necessity" ever a consideration in a basketball game? Not to mention that those of you with a keen eye and an insightful mind will have already noted that whether something is "necessary" is built right into the definition of "excessive". "Going beyond" that which is "necessary" is the same as "unnecessary" and therefore having "unnecessary and excessive" in the rule book is by definition redundant. But that's irrelevant to this discussion, since by issuing a flagrant foul of any sort, the officials were interpreting Ibaka's action here as unnecessary. So we'll just move forward from there.
The question remains, was it excessive? Did his action go "beyond the usual, necessary, or proper limit or degree"? Honestly, if the answer to that question is anything other than "yes" for NBA officials Dan Crawford, Kevin Cutler and Derrick Collins then remind me not to accept any dinner invitations from any of them, who clearly have no idea what is usual, necessary or proper. Let's face it, hitting a guy below the belt is not usual; it is not necessary; and it certainly isn't proper. Ever.
There's a term for hitting a guy below the belt. It's called "hitting a guy below the belt." And it wasn't coined to characterize actions that are proper and usual.
Now, I'm being a tad disingenuous to throw the rule book in the NBA's face in this case, because I realize better than most that there's a vast gulf between the letter of the law and the way in which the law is actually enforced. The "unnecessary and excessive" wording verges on completely useless, as I've pointed out many times before, and in fact there are a whole slew of unwritten guidelines that come into play when interpreting flagrant fouls -- things like did the player make a basketball play, did he make contact above the shoulders, was there intent, was it dangerous.
Still, by most of those rules of thumb, it still seems as if Ibaka should have been ejected. Unless the refs decided he was making a play on the ball. (Thank you. I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitresses.)
I am frequently baffled by the NBA's decisions regarding flagrant fouls. There is little if any consistency from one to the next, even though the calls are all reviewed by a presumably small subset of eyes in the league office. I would not be surprised if this one is upgraded upon review by the league, but that won't help the Clippers. Ibaka remained in the game today, and contributed a three point play and a blocked shot in the final minute of an incredibly close game. The fact that he pretty clearly should have been in the locker room at that point is just one more frustration from a frustrating loss.