Experts: Suspensions justified? Change the rule? Who wins series now?

The NBA came down hard on Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for coming off the bench after Robert Horry's flagrant foul against Steve Nash. Was this the right call? Should there be a rule change?

Our experts answer five questions on the situation.

1. What is your opinion of the NBA's ruling?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: It's miserable, and entirely against what's best for basketball fans. But it's perfectly in keeping with how that rule has always been interpreted in the past.

Jon Barry, ESPN: They had to do it. The rule is clear-cut. You can't leave the bench during an altercation, which is what Amare did, and it was clear what he was doing. He had to be restrained by his coaches. Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen should not be suspended because there was no altercation on the court at the time. The interesting thing is that if James Jones had turned around and got in Francisco Elson's face or there was any brief incident, Duncan would be out too.

Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Heavy-handed and wrong-headed. Horry didn't deserve two games any more than Diaw and Stoudemire deserved one each. I was glad to see both Baron Davis and Jason Richardson play in Game 5, but how is what the San Antonio-Phoenix combatants did more egregious? Rules are meant to be broken when their application fails to execute their purpose. That's why we have judges. This was Exhibit A.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: A mess. They interpreted it in such a way to cause maximum damage to the Suns, even though the Spurs started it. Yes, it's the letter of the law, but I thought they'd even things out by suspending Duncan and Bowen too. The joke's on them, though -- if San Antonio advances because of this ruling, the TV ratings will be far short of what Phoenix would have pulled in.

Tim Legler, ESPN: Based on the wording of the rule, the league office had no choice but to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire. However, it may be the most unbalanced ruling in history. Horry got what he deserved for an egregiously flagrant and inflammatory foul. So the Spurs lose their eighth man while the Suns lose a first-team All-NBA player and another starter. What a joke.

2. Should the rule about leaving the bench be changed or eliminated?

Abbott: This rule has been a big part of the reason that the public doesn't think the NBA is a brawler's league anymore. If the public can stomach more fights -- like there used to be -- then sure, ditch the rule. But if everyone's going to stop buying tickets and moan about "thugs" whenever punches are thrown, they'll have to have this rule or something like it, because once everyone leaves the bench, things can get really ugly really fast.

Barry: It definitely should be changed, because the way it is now, oftentimes the crime doesn't fit the punishment. Just stepping off the bench should not warrant a suspension, especially in this setting of the playoffs. It is clear the rule should be changed to a suspension if you enter the fray. If you stay away from the altercation you should not be suspended.

Bucher: Doesn't matter. If the league can't do a better job of interpreting the spirit of their rules, they won't get it right no matter how the rules are written. I'm a "fairness" over "correctness" guy. As Stu Jackson made clear, he and Stern are not.

Hollinger: As with most things like this, it's the law of unintended consequences. The rule was put in as a response to a few incidents, most notably a Knicks player charging the court in a suit in Phoenix, but it doesn't cover every contingency and there's no nuance to it.

Here's one idea: Make the suspension be for only a quarter or a half if the player didn't have any meaningful participation in the fracas.

Legler: The wording needs to be changed. There has to be room for a split-second reaction from the players on the bench. As long as a player or coach recognizes his transgression and quickly gets off the court before engaging in any physical contact with an opposing player, a suspension should not be warranted.

The NBA office has a lot of smart guys. They should use some of their best judgment to avoid the most highly anticipated series of the year being impacted by great players not participating.

3. What is your take on the behavior of the Spurs and the Suns in this series?

Abbott: I'd say this series went from about a 3 on the chippy scale to about a 6. The main thing that makes the passion so intense at this point is a good thing: the love so many people have for the Suns. Now that the Suns are the latest victims of that often harsh rule, the fury is off the charts.

Barry: There is nothing wrong with playing physical. However, the Horry foul was a dirty play, the Bowen knee was a dirty play, and it was clear there was intent to injure. The thing that is interesting is the Suns were obviously quite upset over the knee. But they were not going to change their style to retaliate. I credit them for sticking to their plan and going out and winning Game 4.

Bucher: I love it. Two talented, passionate teams, doing whatever they can to win. We've become wwwaaaayyyyy too sensitive about every little skirmish.

Hollinger: What's been odd is that the Spurs have been the ones involved in all the chippy play -- in the past it's been other people doing it to them. I'm not up in arms over Bowen like all the Suns fans apparently are (judging by my in-box), but Horry's hit was out of line and out of character.

Legler: The series has been played at a highly physical level, at times bordering on dirty. This is the type of game the Spurs play. It's the ultimate battle of contrasting styles.The Spurs want to initiate contact both offensively and defensively while the Suns need freedom of movement to run their overpowering offensive style.

4. Do you think this series will have a long-term effect on any or all of the following:

(a) league rules and policies in terms of officiating, rules, etc.,

(b) how the league is perceived by fans, and/or

(c) style of play in the NBA?

Abbott: I have received tens of thousands of angry e-mails over the last two years, but today is the first day I can recall that any of them were wondering what the procedure is to replace David Stern -- and there were several. I doubt it means a whole lot over the course of the next month, but I do feel the NBA is on even more notice that fans don't want the league office to be too controlling.

Barry: I don't believe this series will have any long-term effect on anything. The rule may be tinkered with. But this idea that teams are going to change how they play or adapt this style of trying to take out a star player with a lesser player? It isn't going to happen. It would be too obvious a team is doing that and the NBA would take swift action and sniff it out immediately and punish accordingly.

Bucher: The league did a great job of eliminating the conspiracy talk a few years back by providing access to referees and the way they do their job. Now, because of indefensible directives, followed by knee-jerk backtracking, the NBA has made it more clear than ever that it can and will manipulate its games for its own purposes. Micro-management of officials and players, kowtowing to perception rather than reality, is threatening to make the game a joke. Short of the Suns winning it all, this season's champion will be forever saddled by a question mark.

Hollinger: In terms of (a), very little. In terms of (b), it will fuel more conspiracy theories, even though the league has every imaginable incentive possible to favor Phoenix and not the Spurs; but this type of logic doesn't dissuade people. And as far as (c), only if Phoenix wins the series and eventually the title -- if so it will spawn more imitators trying to run and gun their way to the promised land.

Legler: This incident should have an impact on rewording the rule in the manner I described above. There needs to be an allowance for a quick emotional reaction from the bench as long as no contact is made and the player gets back to the bench quickly. The suspensions in this series will hurt the game from a fan standpoint because no fan wants to see a championship affected by a league ruling, particularly one as blatantly unfair as this one.

5. How do you see the next three games (if necessary) playing out?

Abbott: The greatest thing about this moment is that I honestly have no idea, and even with a gun to my head I would not make that call. No choice but to watch and see. If Phoenix can win tonight, though, NBA fans will explode with joy, and that's never a bad thing.

Barry: It is going to be real tough for Phoenix to win Game 5 without Amare and Diaw. The Suns are not a very deep team so they are really going to be calling on James Jones to fill in and it will be too much for them. Which means the Spurs will close out this series in Game 6 back in San Antonio because I see it being far too difficult for Phoenix to win that game on the road.

Bucher: Suns win in six. Their tendency has been to relax when the odds are in their favor. That won't happen in Game 5 now and Amare and Boris will return refreshed and ready to go for Game 6. One caveat: the make-up of the officiating crews is having a greater influence than ever on how games are being officiated. The wrong crew in SA and the series goes to seven.

Hollinger: I said Spurs in seven before it started, but I must concede that Phoenix has been the better team through the first four games. I think the Phoenix crowd will be huge tonight and the refs will give the Suns the
benefit of the doubt because of what's already transpired, so I'll go against the grain and say the Suns win Game 5 even without Stoudemire. But I think the Spurs take the last two and the series.

Legler: The Suns can't beat the Spurs without Stoudemire. They won't get enough points in the paint and will go down in Game 5. However, the basketball gods will allow the Suns to come back and get the last two to win the series. Their Game 4 win in San Antonio has given them the confidence to win a close game versus their true nemesis. So, despite the league's ruling, the Suns will win in 7 and go on to their first NBA title.