Stephen Curry, the NBA's newest and slightest superstar, who has been killing the Nuggets on ankles so brittle he recently tweeted "no ankle left unturned lol," was minding his own business, jogging through the lane three-and-a-half minutes into Game 5, when the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried stepped backward, directly into Curry's tender foot.
It wasn't an isolated event.
"Three or four plays in the first four minutes," estimates Curry, who says "of course" the Nuggets were trying to rough him up.
I knew this was coming. Intentional fouls, I've been increasingly realizing, are the go-to method of controlling superstars. Curry, with a skinny build and weak ankles, is more vulnerable than anybody. As he emerged as a player who could decide a series, the clock was ticking. He would get roughed up. It made too much sense.
"Some dirty plays early," pointed out Curry's coach, Mark Jackson, who later said this of Faried: "Take a look ... the screen on Curry by the foul line is a shot at his ankle. Clearly. That can't be debated. ... I've got inside information that some people don't like that brand of basketball and they clearly didn't co-sign it. So they wanted me to know they had no parts in what was taking place."
Jackson -- whose team has committed all kinds of hard fouls in this series (ask Andre Iguodala about Andrew Bogut) and this season, including some that caused injury -- spoke passionately in defense of hard play, and even hard fouls. But he stressed it was important for both teams to go to the trouble to avoid injuring each other.
On TNT later, Charles Barkley explained: "I've been on teams where you say ... this dude's too comfortable. Every time you get a chance, hit him. You want him to be thinking about 'Where am I going to get hit at next time?' You can't go out there like you're at a shootaround."
Shaquille O'Neal heartily co-signed, saying Jackson went too far in calling such a thing "dirty," insisting instead it's just the nature of the game. (Every retired player will tell you it was way rougher when they played. That's what they do, even though there's little evidence the game was really more physical back then.)
Here's the thing, though: Forget the teams for a second. Forget rooting for Denver or Golden State. Forget the tail-chasing debate about what's "dirty."
Put yourselves in the position of the people who are charged with keeping players safe: The NBA. They're the ones who have fallen asleep on the job here.
If you're the NBA, or any fan of basketball, you want nothing more than for Curry -- the most exciting player in these playoffs -- to keep creating artistic moments that fire the imagination. You want to see skilled players doing the skilled things that make this league unique, and distinct from MMA. You want this for every player.
In short, you don't want to see Curry play his best in Game 6 only if he proves his ankles can withstand intentional attack. (We already know they probably can't ... he has missed dozens of games from plays with no contact at all.) You want him at his best in Game 6 because the other team is not "hitting him every chance they get."
And we could have that, right now.
Teams are roughing up opposing stars because it works. It works because many intentional fouls are missed entirely by the referees, and those that are noticed, even dangerous ones, are punished too lightly to make it stop.
Barkley and O'Neal played in an NBA where there was no strategic reason not to rough a guy like Curry up. You "hit" him 10 times a night as a team, you get called for four or five. That's the cost. The benefit is he is intimidated, fearing for safety, and diminished as a scoring threat all night long, for every play of his night. The benefit is bigger than the cost! Someone with SportVu data can probably do the math: Six or seven extra free throws is a small price to pay for a dozen extra hits -- many uncalled -- that result in a cowed, hobbled or injured opposing star. That's a fantastic trade for the more aggressive team.
That's "playoff basketball."
No coach will go on record against it. They want the ability to hit players early and often, both because it's a valuable tactic for a team and because it's a particularly valuable tactic for coaches. Intentional fouls take power from superstars -- who'd dominate even more without fear of injury -- and give it to he who can order up the hits.
The problem, though, is that it's 2013, and the league has more than enough tools, right now, to clean all of this up. Getting away scot-free with a lot of cheap shots is a key reason this is a winning strategy. But why, in a world where every court is encircled by cameras, where everyone at home benefits from truly instant HD replay from all kinds of angles, would the people making the key decisions of the game not have real-time access to that crucial information? Why would we shrug and say "we can't catch 'em all" when we totally can?
You have no idea how many times a night, thanks to the magic of watching ESPN or TNT in HD with a remote control in my hand, I know precisely whether there was a foul or not, even as the referees have no idea. It's crazy. And it makes the NBA look crazy. Why do the people with the beer and the popcorn on the couch have better real-time information than the people making game-deciding calls?
NBA referees are the best in the world, but everybody thinks they're terrible because of this. And meanwhile, the game is not being called nearly as accurately, quickly or comprehensively as it could be.
My HoopIdea: Get away from stopping the game for video review. And graduate to a courtside referee or two, with as many TV screens as would be helpful, showing every angle imaginable. This video referee crew would constantly review all the best angles of what is happening right now as it happens. They might be a few seconds behind real time if they need to rewind briefly, but not much. They'd essentially know everything video could know, without having to stop the game to huddle around a single monitor. And when they know something the referees on the court missed, they'd be able to tell them at the next dead ball, or even sooner.
The plays where the video makes the referees look foolish ... they're usually at dead balls anyway.
Before you tell me this is loco, realize the league already does this. They review the games after they're over, for instance a whole day later. And then they "correct" the referees' work when it was egregiously wrong, either by apologizing for a missed call, and then warning, fining or suspending somebody for a flop, a dirty play, fighting or anything else.
I'm baffled by the delay. Players are hitting each other as part of team-wide strategy -- endorsed by Barkley, O'Neal and oddly, even Mark Jackson -- because they help them win games.
As long as the real punishment only comes after the game, there are still wins to be had for teams who are beating people up. Whatever the NBA believes can be gleaned from video, glean it when it's still useful to decide the game, when it's still useful to keep up with the fans at home, and to make the strategy of Tackle Basketball stop working.
The league's executives, from David Stern to Stu Jackson, have been clear they do not want teams taking the floor planning to hurt each other. Time to do something about it.