Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder were ejected after an altercation in the third quarter of Houston's 114-80 Game 5 win on Saturday, with Tucker reacting to an apparent low blow from Schroder.
As Schroder ran through a Tucker screen, he swung his arm between Tucker's legs, catching him below the belt. Tucker, who was whistled for an illegal screen, walked up behind Schroder, yelling at him and eventually head-butting the back of his head.
"First thing was, it was obviously an illegal screen. And it was kind of a bang-bang play," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "P.J. obviously after the play was over kind of head-butted Dennis, so they certainly had to eject him, and I didn't know if they felt like they needed to eject Dennis because they ejected P.J. But it was a very quick, aggressive play, and I understand with P.J. getting thrown out maybe they felt like Dennis needed to be thrown out.
"But again, it was an illegal screen. I'm not even going to speculate or even know to read Dennis' mind. It was such a bang-bang play, Dennis was just trying to find a way through the screen and got hung up."
After a review, the foul on Tucker stood, but the officials ejected both players, with Schroder given a Flagrant 2 and Tucker a dead-ball technical foul with an ejection.
After the game, the league began its investigation of Tucker's headbutt by having NBA security question him, a source told ESPN.
"A screen action at the perimeter occurred as Schroder attempted to get through the screen, delivers an unnecessary and excessive act in the groin of Tucker," crew chief James Capers explained after the game via a pool report. "Tucker gets up and head-butts Schroder. The action of Schroder is a Flagrant Penalty 2. The action of Tucker is an automatic ejection technical foul.
"What led us to replay was a hostile act situation," Capers said. "So, when we went there, we got the play right."
The series has featured a few low blows, with Schroder taking a knee in the groin from James Harden in Game 1, and Chris Paul catching Ben McLemore with one in overtime of Game 3. Neither play garnered a review or penalty in-game, though the Rockets were upset Paul's elbow on McLemore wasn't reviewed, with D'Antoni getting a technical foul for making his case.
Sources told ESPN that the Rockets are upset that the league office did not investigate Paul's Game 3 shot to McLemore's groin and consider disciplinary action. The Rockets want a similar prior incident by Schroder to be considered by the league office in the wake of his shot to Tucker's groin, sources told ESPN.
As a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks, Schroder received a one-game suspension for a shot to then-Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins' groin. As was the case with Tucker, the incident occurred while Schroder was attempting to fight over a screen.
Historically, players haven't been suspended for low-blow flagrants in the postseason, with maybe the most famous incident being Warriors forward Draymond Green kicking Thunder center Steven Adams between the legs in the 2016 Western Conference finals.
Green was given a Flagrant 1 and fined $25,000 the following day. Golden State's Green was suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers when the league office retroactively assessed a flagrant 1 foul for making "unnecessary contact with a retaliatory swipe of the hand to the groin" of LeBron James. It was Green's fourth flagrant foul of that postseason, triggering an automatic suspension.
The confrontation between Schroder and Tucker was in the middle of a sizable Houston run to take control of the game, after Schroder played a big part in keeping the Thunder close in the first half. Schroder left the game with 19 points in 21 minutes, 16 coming in a flurry in the second quarter. But without him the Rockets turned a three-point halftime lead into a 22-point lead going into the fourth quarter. Tucker, a critical piece in Houston's small-ball attack, left with 5 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes.
"He got P.J. in a tough spot. I don't know if it was a punch or inadvertently. Who knows?" Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "And then P.J. did kind of tap him on the back of the head with his head, and the referees made a judgment to get both of them out. I don't have a whole lot to say. It's unfortunate for both teams, but it does happen. It is the playoffs."
The Rockets lead the series 3-2 with a chance to close the Thunder on Monday.