Some get excited at the blood. But the NBA is far better when it's about basketball.
In retrospect, the referees lost control of the game early in the second quarter. Tyler Hansbrough fouled the daylights out of Dwyane Wade. Some would point out he "made a play on the ball," as if first hitting the Spalding mitigated a karate chop to the face of the mid-air guy. In slow motion ... wow. With a menacing scowl, Hansbrough met the Heat star in the sky. The fouling begins not with the right hand but with the left -- a forearm to the base of the neck that would have been a hard foul all by itself. Then the right arm windmilled through the ball, Wade's arms, and -- changing paths now, evidently to ensure maximum effect -- veered directly to Wade's eye and temple. Both, of course, are part of an athlete's head, which scientists are increasingly sure can sustain permanent brain damage from seemingly minor impacts like this.
Wade fell to the court, and stayed face down for a while.
Hansbrough slapped a cool low-five with his teammate Lou Amundson -- mission accomplished.
What mission could that have been? What page were they on together, exactly? A clue came from the post-game comments from the franchise's most respected voice. After that game, physical to the point that the fun plays have almost all been forgotten, Pacers president Larry Bird declared how disgusted he was with how "soft" his team had been. Could it be taken any other way than Bird was ordering up more of the same, and harder, in Game 6 -- just like he once did as a Celtic player, precipitating Kevin McHale's clotheslining of Kurt Rambis?
Game 5 had plenty more in store. In real time, commentator Steve Kerr mused about a Flagrant 2 for Hansbrough, which would have resulted in his ejection. It seemed a bit harsh at the time, but in retrospect, it would have been brilliant. In failing to eject Hansbrough, the referees whiffed on their last chance to control the game, took a pass on fulfilling the NBA's mission to prevent the spread of violence and set a precedent that would encourage one dangerous foul after another, all game long.
Moments later, Hansbrough had the ball and room to roll. The only thing between him and the hoop was ... Udonis Haslem -- Wade's avenging angel since they were rookies together.
Hansbrough slowed. Instead of a power dunk, now he was thinking jumper. Haslem swung two arms right through Hansbrough's shooting arm and -- oops! -- caught a whole bunch of face. Hansbrough's head ricocheted. In slow motion he looked like a crash test dummy at the moment of impact. (If you're a mom or a dad or somebody who loves Tyler Hansbrough you'd hate to watch it.)
That hardly ended it. Before the final horn, one had no choice but to wonder if the Heat had held a team meeting about the value of hitting people in the face. David West would be bitter about Shane Battier's knocking him down. West would bash LeBron James on the top of the head with an elbow. Mario Chalmers would snuff out a Paul George drive with a play to the face much like Haslem's, only without Haslem's force. The most violent play of the bunch would come in garbage time, when Heat reserve Dexter Pittman presented his high-speed forearm to the neck of a sprinting Lance Stephenson, which was reminiscent of the ugliest play of last year's playoffs: Andrew Bynum's assault on J.J. Barea.
Despite a rare playoff game filled with beautiful fast-break moments, the story of the NBA would transform, thanks to all those hard playoff fouls, to a story of violence as the league office in New York decides how many players to suspend for Game 6.
And none of it had to happen.
The NBA has it exactly right: The game is better when it's not violent.
There are business reasons for that: Although some fans will tell you they're thrilled by the no-extra-charge sprinkling of mixed martial arts, by and large the league operates with the fear of riling a finicky general sports audience that is terrified of the spectacle of these players -- predominantly black -- behaving violently. In baseball and hockey it's "boys will be boys" but in this sport it's treated like the end of civilization as we know it when they start taking swings. Harsh penalties have essentially eliminated not only bench-clearing brawls but also punches and even most blatant elbows. There's a reason the Wests and Haslems have learned to attack using the elbow of a straight arm.
There are also basketball reasons to police rough play more in this sport than others. This sport is at its best when the action is free-flowing. Both of those hard fouls were designed in part to keep the Wades and Hansbroughs of the world from finishing at the rim with power dunks. But, of course, those power dunks are exactly what the league and its fans rightly want. That is the sport at its best. Two guys knocking each other in the noggin -- you can get that from all kinds of dumber, less skilled, less athletic games.
This is the sport where people fly to the hoop, and the vast majority of "hard playoff fouls" are designed to scare players from even trying to take off.
It's like using a jet fighter as a battering ram. Nothing dumber.
Old-timers tell fish tales of a game that was both vastly better and far more violent years ago. But the video reveals the truth: Through the NBA's "glory days" players had almost no muscle, didn't run nearly as fast or jump as high, didn't take defense anywhere near as seriously and endured precious little contact. Not to mention, the scores in those days were through the roof compared to today, precisely because so very many of those offensive players were entirely unmolested by defense. The most famous hard foul of yesteryear, Kevin McHale's clotheslining of Kurt Rambis, was such a big deal because it was such a massive departure from the norm. A few years ago Jason Kidd threw Jannero Pargo the court every bit as hard, and nobody remembers it because players go down that hard all the time.
Nowadays bigger, stronger bodies collide play after play, at elevations off the court few could imagine three decades ago. The forces in play are vastly greater, the knowledge of brain damage that much more acute. The league does far more than ever to prevent the escalation of violence, because it has to and should.
That is why referees are lectured again and again about keeping control of games, and dealing harshly with the kinds of fouls that might lead to escalation. This is why the work of Game 5's referees, Derrick Stafford, Greg Willard and Jason Phillips, is being second-guessed by the league as we speak.
Of all the dumb moments of Game 5 -- and there were several, including Danny Granger injuring his own ankle while trying to put a hard foul on James (the second time he twisted his ankle, when he had to leave the game for good) and Mike Miller playing an extended period with a Nike on one foot and a sock on the other -- none was dumber than the referees' huddle moments after Hansbrough's foul.
Everyone at home with or without a DVR, every fan in the seats and the people at league offices in New York all had replay of the video to watch. And they did. Miami fans who reacted mildly in real time saw it on the arena's big screen and were suddenly livid. It was a lot worse in replay, which made Hansbrough's intentions clear as something beyond blocking a shot.
The poor referees were just about the only people in the world who could not see it again, and they were the only people in the world who got to decide Hansbrough's penalty.
In retrospect, a Flagrant 2 would have been the right call, for two reasons. The first is, we now know with the unfair benefit of hindsight, that it would have prevented several more blows to the head. The second, though, is that thanks to the oddities of NBA rules, that call would would have triggered a video review, finally putting the referees on an equal information footing with Joe and Jane Fan in the tenth row.
Some say the league does not want to have everything decided by video. But they are deciding it that way right now, today, in New York, where league officials are watching nothing but video. From the rules:
League will review every flagrant, called or not. The League Office will consider the following factors (as well as any other relevant facts and circumstances) in determining whether to classify a foul as Flagrant “1” or Flagrant “2”, to reclassify a flagrant foul, or to impose a fine and/or suspension on the player involved: how hard the foul was; the outcome of the foul (e.g., whether it led to an altercation); and the level of the injury sustained by the player who was fouled.
It is great that the league is using video to get to the bottom of these things. It's the best available tool for investigating flagrant fouls, flopping, and a hundred other kinds of calls.
But why so slow? Here the NBA is losing a battle with the information age. On these tough-to-get-right-in-real-time calls, the league is fooled nightly, and everybody knows it.
Meanwhile, whole wars are being fought, missiles fired, bombs dropped, combat teams deployed based on real-time decisions, based on video beamed around the world. Barack Obama oversees Navy Seals by television, and gets Osama bin Laden as a result.
The NBA is no war, at least it's not supposed to be, but the same kinds of information can be processed just as fast. Which means where there used to be three options there are now four:
Get things blatantly wrong now and again and deal with the fact there will be a certain error rate.
Stop games almost constantly to review video, making the game a horrible TV product just as TV replaces tickets as the biggest revenue source.
Review video in New York and hand down punishments a day or two after the game.
Review video in real time.
No. 4 is, to me, obviously where the league is headed. There can't be blatant mistakes every night -- not the way people consume the game now. They can't make us wait while referees watch. And waiting for the real people to review the tape ... how could that possibly take so long? It's a few seconds of video. It's impossible to watch for more than a minute or two. Make up your mind and move on.
Here's my HoopIdea: The reviews in New York must happen instantly, mid-game, so that a player can be ejected or not while it still matters, and can still prevent a game from getting out of hand. Alternately, and better: Have a fourth, video-enabled referee on the sidelines, reviewing everything all the time. That referee would have started reviewing on video the moment the play was whistled dead, and could have easily had a good, lasting decision in the interim before Wade stepped to the line. That referee could also quickly and permanently solve flopping, traveling, out of bounds and so much more.
It's not how things used to be done, but it didn't used to be that every fan had better information than the referees. It's where this is headed, and it'll make a better game, one where it will make little sense for players to try to fool the referees with hard fouls, flops or anything else.