CLEVELAND -- Hawks center Al Horford was ejected from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when he was called for a flagrant 2 foul on Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova in the second quarter.
The play occurred in the final minute of the second quarter of the Cavaliers' 114-111 overtime win with the Hawks leading 48-47. Multiple players from both teams were pursuing a loose ball in the Atlanta half court following a missed running floater by Horford when Horford, Dellavedova and Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll fell to the floor.
In the battle for the ball, Dellavedova and Horford got tangled while Dellavedova was trying to box out the Hawks big man. Dellavedova tumbled over Carroll, who had already fallen to the floor. Dellavedova then rolled into Horford's right knee, sending Horford to the floor. As Horford crumpled, his elbow and forearm struck Dellavedova above the right shoulder.
"I'll definitely learn from this and will make sure to keep my composure and things like this don't happen," Horford said. "But the game before I got hit in the knees and it kind of played over again."
After a lengthy replay review by referees John Goble, Ken Mauer and Tony Brothers, Horford was charged with the flagrant 2 foul, while Dellavedova was assessed a technical foul. According to a source, all three officials were unanimous in the decision.
"He made contact above the shoulders, to the shoulder and head area of Dellavedova," Mauer said.
While the officials huddled, Cleveland fans serenaded Dellavedova with chants of "Del-lee, Del-lee.''
"I think that we're on the road and the crowd keeps looking at it over and over, and they're hyping it up," Horford said. "I think it plays in the mind a little bit. At the end of the day, it's the ref's decision. He's the one that decides.
"In the heat of the moment, I just told [Mauer], 'Listen, he went after my legs.' That's what I said to him. 'He went after my legs,' " Horford said. "If it was on purpose or not, we don't know. Maybe it wasn't on purpose. With his track record, I just felt like it was. Again, on my part, very, very poor for doing that."
In Game 2, Dellavedova fell onto Hawks guard Kyle Korver's leg going after a loose ball, resulting in a season-ending severe high ankle sprain for Korver.
During Game 5 of the conference semifinals between Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls, Dellavedova and Bulls center Taj Gibson got into an altercation that resulted in Gibson's ejection. Not unlike the sequence with Horford, that play had begun with Dellavedova attempting to box out the opposing big man. While on the floor, Dellavedova locked his legs around Gibson's foot, prompting Gibson to kick him.
"He's a player who plays hard," Horford said. "We're out there competing, but he's got to learn. He's only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever, but he's got to learn that, at the end of the day, it's a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other. I don't think it was malicious, but he's got to learn."
In his postgame media availability, Dellavedova defended his actions on Sunday night and took issue with any suggestion that he's a dirty player.
"I would obviously disagree with that," Dellavedova said. "I was boxing [Horford] out and you can see from the baseline view he's pulling my left arm down."
Sitting alongside Dellavedova at the podium, LeBron James passionately backed his teammate's rugged style of play and insisted that no player in the league looks to intentionally harm an opponent.
"Obviously, I'm a little bit off about it because this is my guy, this is my teammate, and this is a guy that goes out and works his tail off every single night, and people are trying to give him a bad rap," James said. "He doesn't deserve it, and I don't like it." Mauer said that Dellavedova's history was not taken into account when evaluating Horford's actions.
James supported Dellavedova's explanation of the box out on Horford.
"That is a fundamental box out. That's all it is,'' James said about the play. "We're not trying to get people hurt. But you play to win the game and you play aggressively. This guy, he works his tail off every single day. He beats the odds and he comes to play as hard as he can every single night."
"There is a pattern of behavior," Cavs coach David Blatt told TNT's Rachel Nichols in an on-court interview. "He plays very hard. He plays very tough but very cleanly."
In addition to Horford, several of his Hawks teammates noted Dellavedova's recent history, though stopped short of contesting the official ruling on the court.
"You look at his track record and his history, a lot of things can be said," Hawks wing Kent Bazemore said. "But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. We lost Al, and still had a game to play."
With Cleveland leading the series 3-0 and several Hawks players calling into question Dellavedova's intent and repeated presence in similar incidents this postseason, James questioned why the Atlanta locker room was preoccupied with the second-year guard.
"If they're focused on Delly, then they're focused on the wrong thing," James said.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said that after reviewing the play several times on video, he was unsure whether Horford's behavior warranted an ejection.
"I've looked at the play, and officiating in our league is very difficult," Budenholzer said. "From the replays, for me, it's somewhat difficult to see whether his elbow hits the shoulder first or hits the head first. If he hits the shoulder first, then I think it's not something that's an action that deserves ejection. If he hit him in the head, then it's an action that deserves ejection."
The two teams meet in Game 4 on Tuesday night in Cleveland.