HoopsHype.com Columns

Insane ruling leaves Spurs-Suns unsettled
by Dennis Hans / May 20, 2007

Once a year in Memphis the NBA takes time to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King believed in drawing attention to unjust laws by knowingly, openly violating them. He and his followers were willing to pay the price, confident that their selfless acts would hasten the day that the law was modified or scrapped.

I would have liked to see some civil disobedience on the part of the Suns and Spurs following the asisine suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw: both teams refusing to play Game 5 until the suspensions were lifted (and, perhaps to make the action more appealing to the Spurs, having Robert Horry’s legitimate suspension reduced from two games to one).

Alas, it was not to be. Official NBA idiocy went unchallenged, which was also the case with two recent, similar incidents:

• In 2004, Ron Artest was suspended for a playoff game versus Boston when he took a few steps on to the court before realizing what he was doing, then quickly retreating to the bench. Given Artest’s mental makeup, rather than a suspension he should have been given an award by the commissioner for demonstrating the self-control everyone wanted to see him display.

• Last season, third-string Dallas center DJ Mbenga was suspended for six playoff games for acting as a perfect gentleman in helping Mark Cuban defuse a situation in the stands in Phoenix involving a Suns fan and the wife of coach Avery Johnson. Again, a good-citizenship certificate for Mbenga who was inactive and in street clothes at the time would have been a more appropriate conclusion to the episode. If Erick Dampier or DeSagana Diop had gotten hurt, that suspension would have left the Mavs with just one big man to deal with Shaquille O’Neal the first five games of the Finals.

David Stern and Stu Jackson point solemnly to the “red letter” rules governing players stepping on the court when an altercation breaks out or going into the stands under any circumstances. The commissioner and his executive vice president remind me of Deputy Barney Fife, who could always be counted on to make a mess of things in Mayberry through rigid enforcement of some silly, poorly crafted law whenever Sheriff Andy Taylor was away. Like Stern and Jackson, by-the-book Barney ranked “correctness” above “fairness.” Soon the whole town would be in an uproar until sensible, fair-minded Andy returned to clear up the mess and restore sanity.

That’s why I’m proposing that Stern be immediately replaced by Sheriff Andy Taylor. Yes, I realize he’s a fictional TV character from the early 1960s. But we could get a young actor with a Carolina twang to portray him, and his modus operandi would be to ask himself before every basketball decision, What would Andy do?

DEVELOPED DEPTH A KEY DIFFERENCE

Turning to the actual games, Charles Barkley might want to transfer the nickname “Groundhog Day” from Tim Duncan to Mike D’Antoni. Yes, the Suns have had some very tough luck with injuries and suspensions that have left them shorthanded for key stretches of three consecutive postseasons when they’ve been title contenders. But D’Antoni has hurt himself by not developing reserve talent during the season so he could trust them if needed in the playoffs. Fatigue, foul trouble and occasional tentative play on offense and soft play on defense because of the threat of foul trouble will continue to plague the Suns until D’Antoni fixes one of his very few coaching flaws.

If the Spurs could keep Michael Finley (22 minutes per game in the regular season) fit and sharp, why couldn’t the Suns have done the same with their comparable veteran, Jalen Rose? If the Spurs could get valuable minutes in big games from feisty Jacque Vaughn, why couldn’t the Suns have gotten the same from Marcus Banks? Are the players the difference, or are the coaches? Would Gregg Popovich have been able to get from Rose and Banks what he got from Finley and Vaughn? I think yes. Remember, he kept Horry and Matt Bonner sharp, too. Would D’Antoni keep Finley and Vaughn in mothballs while crossing his fingers that injuries, foul trouble or preposterous suspensions wouldn’t happen? Again, I think yes.

A ready-to-roll bench might have made a difference in the Game 5 nail-biter, played in Phoenix without the two suspendees. A few extra points, an energy boost in the middle of each half, and a bit more rest for Shawn Marion, Steve Nash and Raja Bell so they’d be fresh at the end any one of those factors could have put the Suns over the top. A Game 5 win would have given them two shots to close out the Spurs, and fatigue wouldn’t have been a factor in Game 6.

AN ALL-TIMER IN THE MIDDLE

The Spurs biggest advantage was in the middle, where they have one of the all-time greats. I’m glad to see espn.com’s John Hollinger echoing what I wrote last year: that, regardless of what Duncan calls himself, he plays at both ends like a center. He’s not the “greatest power forward of all time”; rather, he’s one of the great centers of all time. Against the Suns he dominated the paint on both ends, with the exception of Game 4, when bogus offensive fouls (the sort that often derails Stoudemire) had him on the bench or walking on egg shells. Otherwise, he was blocking and bothering a ton of shots at one end and schooling Kurt Thomas and company in the low post at the other.

Duncan had plenty of help from the dynamic driving duo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and defensive super-pest Bruce Bowen. Yes, Bowen is an occasional cheapshot artist, and if I were Stu Jackson I would have forced Bowen to publicly explain exactly what he was doing with that unnatural leg sweep on Stoudemire’s dunk, and who taught him that maneuver (assuming he didn’t develop it on his own). That stuff doesn’t belong in the game, and the more light we shed on it and hold the practitioners and tutors accountable, the better off the NBA will be.

That said, judging solely from the six games of the series, the only player I’d describe as a “volume cheater” is Raja Bell. Perhaps the hoop gods wanted to end the season of a guy who routinely falls down after making contact with soft picks by Finley, so they arranged for the suspension of an indispensable Sun. And just to be ironic, the hoop gods selected a Sun who, unlike Bell, has unimpeachable basketball integrity: the non-flopping, non-undercutting, non-cheapshotting Stoudemire.

Maybe it’s as simple as that. Or maybe the hoop gods wanted to expose Stern and Jackson as too tone-deaf for their jobs. Whatever the explanation, it’s not a good way to settle a series between two great teams.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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