A suspension wasn't exactly unexpected. When Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo flipped the ball off the chest of a game official Sunday evening in Detroit, earning a double technical and automatic ejection, it was pretty obvious that the league would follow up with additional punishment.
The surprise might have been that the NBA handed down a two-game ban Monday, ruling swift and hard against a player without any history of discipline issues. Rondo sat out the first of those two games as the Celtics fell to the Mavericks, 89-73, Monday night in Dallas and also will miss Wednesday's pre-All-Star break finale in Oklahoma City, which falls on Rondo's 26th birthday.
First things first: Rondo's actions were inexcusable. Angry at the lack of a foul call on a third-quarter drive -- particularly in a game in which Detroit was practically living at the charity stripe -- Rondo voiced displeasure with referee Sean Wright and said a few not-suitable-for-print words that might have landed him a technical on their own. But zipping the ball at the official sealed his fate. As his upcoming birthday reminds us, Rondo needs to be more mature at this age (even if he's certainly still young by NBA standards).
"You're always disappointed when that happens," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before Monday's game in Dallas. "You should never put yourself in front of the team. But it's an emotional game. We can all agree that it was a pretty bad foul -- and a clear foul -- that wasn't called. At the time, we were getting our butts kicked and the frustration was high and it's a human game. I can guarantee you five seconds ... after it happened, I guarantee you Rondo wished he could take it back."
But he can't, so the question becomes does the punishment fit the crime?
Some immediately lamented that Rondo got a sentence similar to that of Minnesota's Kevin Love, who stomped on Houston's Luis Scola earlier this month and also received a two-game ban. What's more, the league's recent disciplinary action suggests a one-game ban would have been the more expected path given that both Lakers coach Mike Brown (left the bench and bumped a referee in Utah) and Robin Lopez (brushed a referee running back upcourt against Toronto) each received a one-game ban, while Milwaukee's Stephen Jackson got the same for verbally abusing an official.
A review of documented NBA fines and suspensions from the past decade shows that the last two-game ban before Love came last April when Orlando's Quentin Richardson shoved Charlotte's Gerald Henderson in the face during regular-season play. Los Angeles' Andrew Bynum earned the same penalty in March 2011 after a flagrant foul on Michael Beasley.
In fact, the last player to get a two-game ban for an official-related run-in was Seattle's Danny Fortson for berating a referee and failing to leave the court in a timely manner during a game against Minnesota in December 2005 (and that was on the heels of a previous two-game ban for Fortson after yelling at a ref and throwing a chair in February of the same year).
All the other two-game bans over much of the past decade have almost exclusively been the result of physical altercations between two players or off-the-court legal troubles (most notably, arrests for DUI).
Which makes you wonder: If the referee had simply caught the ball when Rondo threw it at him, would this even be an issue? Players sometimes put a little extra mustard on the ball when handing it to officials under the basket on made shots, but Rondo's action was pretty clearly to express his frustration.
And you can't fault the league for protecting its officials. If there's one thing that the NBA absolutely cannot allow it's for players to bully referees at any point. Rondo verbally yelled at Wright, then angrily delivered the ball as the referee was motioning toward the scorer's table.
The NBA needed to act, but came down mighty harsh, especially in a condensed season where wins are even more of a premium than in recent years. Rondo's absence couldn't come at a worse time for his team, which played without Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass on Monday night, and lost fellow big men Jermaine O'Neal (wrist) and Chris Wilcox (adductor) to injury as well.
Rondo will be eligible to return to the court in Cleveland on Feb. 28, Boston's first game after the All-Star festivities. With the C's stumbling into the break, he'll have to make up for lost time -- and a clear lapse in judgment.