NBA Playoff Poise: Even good guys have bad intentions in postseason
By Brian Mahoney
Derek Fisher peeked over his shoulder, sized up his target, and threw a vicious shoulder block that leveled Luis Scola.
And Fisher is regarded as one of the NBA’s good guys.
So is Dwight Howard, who also was suspended a game in this postseason for taking a shot at an opponent’s head.
If guys like them can’t keep their cool in the playoffs, who can?
“When our players are in a competitive environment with the stakes being extremely high, I’ve always felt that it brings out the best and the worst in people, be it players, be it coaches,” NBA executive vice president of operations Stu Jackson said.
“And sometimes even the players that wouldn’t ordinarily behave in a manner during the regular season, during the postseason it changes, and sometimes players do things that they probably later regret.”
Jackson has already handed out three suspensions, one more than all of last postseason. Besides Fisher and Howard, he also penalized Orlando’s Rafer Alston a game for slapping Boston guard Eddie House in the head.
None fit the profile of a head hunter, yet nobody seems too shocked when even the good citizens suddenly have bad intentions.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Denver’s Chauncey Billups said. “Playoff time is a lot more chippy. Everything means a lot more so you’re going to do everything you can to help your team out.”
Sometimes it ends up hurting. Orlando won both games without its suspended players and the Lakers survived without Fisher, but the Dallas Mavericks lost Game 6 of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals without Jason Terry, who was suspended after throwing a punch at San Antonio’s Michael Finley in the previous game.
“It was me three years ago. I lose my cool and cost my team a game,” Terry said. “You know that it’s the heat of the battle, but at the same time you’ve got to be realistic. You don’t want to hurt your team and be suspended.
“We got out of the situation good, but it easily could’ve been a real downward spiral for us. We could’ve lost Game 7.”
Still, players sometimes find it hard not to react, even ones on title contenders who have every reason to walk away.
“Absolutely, we have a few guys on this team who could lose their cool,” said NBA MVP LeBron James of Cleveland. “I’m not going to say who. Hopefully guys on our team know how important the game is and try not to take things personal. But there comes a time where someone can really test your manhood. You may have to react sometimes. You don’t want to be disrespected.”
James was hit in the face last postseason by Washington’s Darius Songaila, earning the Wizards forward a one-game suspension. The Wizards thought they needed to be physical with James ó but they were probably also sick of him while losing to the Cavaliers for the third straight year in the playoffs.
James usually brushes off hard hits, saying he played football and can handle it. With cheap shots, it isn’t always so simple.
“It is tough. If someone is really disrespectful or it’s not a basketball play and out of character, it can be tough (to keep your composure),” he said. “We got guys that are mentally tough and know the game is more important than getting into an altercation. But hey, sometimes it can escalate into an altercation.”
The Wizards were a finesse team who thought they needed to act tough come playoff time. Ron Artest accused the Lakers of doing the same thing after Kobe Bryant elbowed him Wednesday, saying Los Angeles was trying to prove it wasn’t the same team that got pushed around by Boston in the NBA finals.
Had Bryant’s elbow struck Artest above the shoulders ó and Artest said it did ó the Lakers All-Star likely would have been suspended along with Fisher for the next game, making it a foolish and potentially costly mistake. The kind that the intensity of the playoffs forces many players to make.
“I think so. It has to,” said Denver forward Kenyon Martin, who was fined $25,000 for his flagrant foul on Dirk Nowitzki. “You have to play that much harder, have to be that much more focused. I think it brings the good and the bad out of some people.
“A guy might’ve had a bad day that day, you never know. He could be the most mild-mannered guy in the world, but maybe his dog died. You just never know. Certain things trigger certain things in certain people.”
That causes plenty of work for Jackson, who besides the suspensions has to review or issue the 13 flagrant fouls that had been committed through Friday’s games. He insists the competitiveness of the players is a positive.
“The intensity, the aggression, the stakes all rise and the bottom line is … they want to win and it’s important to them,” Jackson said. “Because of all those factors and being competitive and aggressive and intense, sometimes players behave on the floor in such a way that it’s counter to our rules and that’s where we have to intervene to ensure that the games remain being played safely for our players.”