Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder has a history. In fact, he has a very specific history with Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers. Ibaka and Griffin have faced each other 19 times in their careers, 15 times in the regular season, four times in the playoffs. In that time, off the top of my head, Ibaka has collected three flagrant fouls against Griffin, been ejected once, and has picked a couple of technical fouls. In addition, he also bloodied Griffin's mouth in Game 3 with no call from the officials, and hit Griffin in the groin early in Game 4, again with no call.
Three officials at the game can miss calls certainly, as they did with the low blow from Game 4. (As for the bloody mouth in Game 3, there's a reasonable case to be made that it was not a foul, the Blake just ran into Ibaka's elbow, but interestingly when you watch those replays Ibaka had probably fouled Griffin at least three times before the elbow even happened.) The ABC cameras did not miss the low blow, and presumably the NBA is reviewing that video at this time, trying to decide if Ibaka should receive a punishment that he avoided during the game.
In a somewhat similar situation in the first round, the Thunder benefited from an NBA decision, when Zach Randolph was suspended for Game 7 of their series against the Grizzlies for 'punching' Steven Adams. There was little intent in Randolph's action in Game 6, but the NBA felt there was enough evidence in the video to justify a crucial Game 7 suspension.
Of course we've been here before with Ibaka. It's not everyday for one NBA player to hit another NBA player below the belt -- it happens, but not often. In Ibaka's case, he has now hit Griffin below the belt -- intentionally or not -- on two separate occasions, which would seem to raise a red flag or two. Last season when Ibaka hit Griffin, the NBA somewhat inexplicably decided to fine Ibaka but not suspend him.
I went through the possible explanations for that decision at the time, and none of them were particularly satisfactory. One that stands out though is the idea of history. Zach Randolph no doubt received his Game 7 suspension in part because he has had a history of on court incidents, including a punch of Lou Amundson while Z-Bo was a Clipper. Last year when Ibaka avoided suspension, some suggested that it was because he did not have a reputation as a trouble maker on the court. He probably deserved a worse reputation than he had even then, but surely we no longer see a halo above Serge's head after so many other incidents. Last year's groin shot was clearly intentional -- much more intentional than what happened in Game 4 -- but if the NBA takes history into account, it's impossible to ignore that this is a repeat offense. The NBA likes to throw the term 'zero tolerance' around -- zero seems like the correct number of low blows that one player should have to endure from another one, yet this has now happened twice.
Doc Rivers has seen the tape, though he has not spoken to the league about it. He assumes they are reviewing it, but he's going to leave that to them and worry about preparing his team, as indeed his should. But make no mistake, this is big. In a series tied 2-2, if Ibaka is suspended for Game 5 in Oklahoma City, it could make all the difference.
Do I think Ibaka should be suspended? No, I don't. But he clearly should have been suspended last season. Two wrongs don't make a right; but at the same time the league has to apply rules consistently. It's impossible to adjudicate intent -- in the current incident, Kendrick Perkins very clearly pushed Ibaka's arm forward; but while you can see some cause and effect with Perkins' push, a punch directly to the groin doesn't seem like the natural reaction in this case. It's at least eerily coincidental and a bit too convenient.
For now we wait. The NBA has a big decision to make. If Ibaka is suspended for Game 5, it will give a huge edge to the Clippers in a crucial game. If he is not suspended, the Clippers will be left to ask -- yet again -- why this guy continues to escape punishment for striking Blake Griffin.
[Note by Steve Perrin, 05/12/14 8:17 PM PDT ] It was inevitable. I knew it would happen. The time stamp on this post is 4:18PM PT. Marc Spears tweeted at 4:20 that Ibaka would receive neither a fine nor a suspension.
Thunder forward Serge Ibaka won't be fined or suspended for punching Clippers forward Blake Griffin in the groin. http://t.co/vm2qeEM21f— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) May 13, 2014
Here's the thing. Looking at the GIF gain, I noticed something very peculiar. I've played a lot of basketball. I've hit guys inadvertently a LOT over the decades. I've drawn blood with my elbow as recently as last week. I've caught guys by accident in the eye, in the mouth, and yes, even in the groin. And you know what? When something like that happens, your first reaction is "Oh shit, I'm sorry, that was an accident dude. Are you OK? Watch Ibaka on the GIF. He makes solid contact with Griffin with his fist -- and he turns to look for the rebound. For me, that decides it -- he knew what he was doing. If that's an accident, why does Ibaka act like nothing happened? Something happened, and the only reason a player (a human let's say) would act like nothing happened is if there were intent and they didn't want to draw attention to it.
Whatever. If you're keeping score at home, that's two punches below the belt and one bloodied mouth without so much as a how-do-you-do from the league, but I'm sure he's a great guy off the court.