Flagrant Fouls, Leaving the Bench, and Suspensions

First of all, a question: does anybody want to see Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspended for Game 5?

I have the utmost respect for the league's right to make that call, and you have to admit that there is way less fighting these days than there used to be, and this rule is part of the reason why.

And surely, players know this by now, and should have the impulse control to adhere to it.

But, they didn't. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw briefly scampered up the court, and then back to the bench again, during a really heated moment.

What now? Is there any good way the NBA can not suspend them?

It's a long shot, but ... maybe.

Forget the "Amare Stoudemire was going to check in" defense that had no chance after the TNT crew mocked it so soundly post-game. The Suns have a new, and to my mind better, rationale for why Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw should not be suspended: there was no fight.

The rule about leaving the bench applies only if there is not an altercation. Who decides whether or not it's an altercation? My quick examination of the rule book reveals no answers -- although I welcome your research and input.

I did notice one handy fact, though: lucky for the Suns, as far as I know no one was assessed what the rule book considers a "fighting foul." If Raja Bell's technical had met that description, he would have been ejected -- and there would have been a clear-cut case that there had been an altercation.

Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic reports:

Nash tried to downplay Stoudemire and Diaw's involvement. "First of all, that would be terrible if that silly play at the end of the game, when the game is really over, causes a detriment to the rest of the series," he said. "Second of all, there wasn't a fight. It wasn't like guys left the bench to enter the fight. So I don't see what, in the big picture, the deal is. If you want to be technical about it, guys are on the court the whole game, cheering at one time or another, and they're over the (end) line. If someone's not throwing a punch or someone doesn't run out there to enter a fight, I think it's a moot point."

ESPN's Marc Stein points out that there is one case -- under very different circumstances -- when players left the bench and were not suspended. So there have been exceptions. Stein also writes, in today's Daily Dime:

Stoudemire and Diaw never made it near the scrum, as Suns assistant coaches scrambled them back to the bench. Nor did Monday's incident ever become an actual brawl, with referees Joe DeRosa and Javie getting between Nash and Horry before it could escalate. There is also a growing perception, most of all, that Bowen was shown a good deal of leniency by the league office after being accused of intentionally kicking a dunking Stoudemire in Game 2 and kneeing Nash in Game 3 ... and going unpunished in both cases. Doesn't the league have to balance that against the notion of "staying consistent" on leaving-the-bench suspensions?

It will be very interesting to see what happens. Random related thoughts and links:

  • The Suns could conceivably win Game 5 without Stoudemire and Diaw. It is unlikely, and they would be serious underdogs. But their shooters can catch fire sometimes. It would be the most-Hollywood possible storyline. James Jones and Raja Bell combine for 50, or somesuch.

  • 100% Injury Rate points out that the way the rules are written, it makes sense to have an unimportant player hack the hell out of a star. If the hacking team is prepared for it, and stays calm, you might get the other team to leave the bench costing quality players for the next game -- while only the hacking scrub is in jeapordy of a suspension. No one's alleging that's what the Spurs did, but it's still bizarre that the rules function in that way, and certainly there are examples of cases in which the team that instigates the fight ends up with a lighter punishment.

  • Robert Horry is a smart, cool, poised cat. I'm not saying that means he intended to hurt Steve Nash or start some kind of fight. But I do not believe that, whatever happened, he just lost his mind in a fit of rage. (UPDATE: OK, he's not always cool. But in this case, he had just checked into the game, and suddenly he's rageful at Steve Nash?) He's the king of playoff crunch time. Whatever he did, I presume it was with mind intact. Besides, it made sense to foul hard and see what happened. Sometimes you get lucky.

  • Suspensions would be much more palatable if they could magically be delayed until Game 6, which will be in San Antonio. So Phoenix loses that one on the road. Big deal. But to be underdogs for a Game 5 at home? That's dangerously close to deciding the series. .. and for a little scamper, after a San Antonio-instigated event? Going down 3-2 with the series headed to San Antonio makes it a tough accomplishment just to get to Game 7.

  • One way or another, this series MUST go to that seventh game. We need that, as fans. Please.

UPDATE: Steve Kerr on Yahoo:

... if the league decides to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire, it may have to suspend Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen as well.

In a play that went entirely unnoticed until well after the game was over, both Duncan and Bowen actually left San Antonio's bench early in the second quarter after Francisco Elson and James Jones were entangled. Replays clearly show Duncan walking several steps onto the court as Elson and Jones appeared to be ready to get into it. Bowen then followed Duncan onto the floor, grabbed him and led him back to the bench. If the league does indeed follow the letter of the law, both Spurs players would also be suspended for Game 5.

I watched the video of this myself. Duncan and Bowen certainly cross the line, albeit not in a heated manner at all, and only barely over the line. And at the time they did, it looked like this might turn into an altercation. If anyone is going to use the "a rule is a rule and that is that" argument, this would certainly diffuse it. Which means, I guess, we are now 100% in the land of a David Stern judgment call.