At almost two weeks in, the NBA playoffs have been abundantly entertaining. And though the play has been high-level, the drama of fierce competition and player rivalries is what has garnered much of the spotlight. So once again, continuing with the theme started by last week’s column, we are going to put the X’s and O’s to the side and focus on pure entertainment.
By the time this column runs on Thursday, either the reigning champion Golden State Warriors or the Sacramento Kings will lead the first-round series between the two northern California rivals—the two teams are only a two-hour drive from each other, but the gap in success over the past two decades could not be larger. Four games in, the series is tied 2-2—both teams successfully defended their home courts. From this perspective, the series has gone as expected and might even seem to be lacking in intrigue. However, this could not be further from the truth as the series has arguably been this year’s playoffs’ most entertaining matchup. The Kings earned their first playoff berth in 17 years—finishing third in the Western Conference—and a date with the 21st century’s greatest basketball power, who fell to the conference’s sixth seed as it dealt with injuries to its star players and struggled to win games on the road. Sacramento quickly showed itself capable of winning the series as it handled the Warriors’ best punches in the first two games and managed to strike back stronger. But, we won’t be focused on the Warriors’ punches through prolific offense. Instead, let’s talk about the stomp.
In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Kings star Domantas Sabonis went to the ground after pursuing an offensive rebound. Laying in the paint, Sabonis wrapped his arm around Draymond Green’s leg. It’s difficult to tell why or how Sabonis ended up with his arm around Green’s leg. But, if you watch Sabonis fall to the ground, it seems fair to say that there was at least a basic level of unintentionality in what he did with his arms as he fell on his back. Green, easily irritated as always, objected to Sabonis wrapping his arm around him and responded with a stomp on Sabonis’ chest as he freed himself from the Kings’ center’s grasp. I don’t know how powerful the stomp was, but it is clear that Green could have avoided stepping on Sabonis while disentangling himself. Even if he couldn’t have avoided stepping on Sabonis, it is also clear that he could have taken a much lighter, softer step. As Sabonis laid on the ground in agony—we also don’t know how much of this was exaggerated—the play was stopped. After a video review of the incident, Sabonis was given a technical foul, and Green was ejected from the game. Unapologetic as ever, Green didn’t exit the court before sharing a piece of his mind with heckling Kings fans. The next day, the league announced in a press release it had suspended Green from playing in Game 3.
Two days later, one of the league’s top MVP candidates, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, had a similar leg-centered scuffle with Nic Claxton of the Brooklyn Nets during Game 3 of their first round series. After finishing an emphatic alley-oop dunk over Embiid, Claxton took a second to stand over the 76ers star. Embiid responded to Claxton’s taunt by flailing his legs, kicking Claxton in the groin. Embiid found himself in a situation very similar to Draymond Green’s—an opponent looking to provoke an emotional response from an easily incitable star. Embiid’s reaction was arguably worse than Green’s: He had no reason to be flailing his legs. Yet, Embiid was neither ejected from the game nor was he suspended from Game 4. Such a verdict from the NBA was unjust, one that likely made the difference between Brooklyn managing to win at least one game and avoiding a sweep. Embiid’s kick came in the first quarter and despite him playing the entire game, the Nets only lost by five points in what was certainly their best chance to take a game from the 76ers. Ironically, Embiid still missed Game 4 but due to injury, not suspension. The NBA seemed to set a clear and fair precedent with how it handled Green’s incident with Sabonis. Yet somehow the NBA managed to stray from it only two days later when facing a more egregious and more impactful offense—losing Embiid is a much greater loss for the 76ers than the loss of Green for the Warriors.
And on Saturday night, proud instigator Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies, humiliated himself after taunting LeBron James in interviews. As the saying goes: If you come at the king, you best not miss. And well, Brooks missed—a lot. Recklessly confident, he took 13 shots and made only three as he played a major part in digging the 35-9 hole the Grizzlies found themselves in after the first quarter against James’ Los Angeles Lakers. The game didn’t get much better for Memphis after that, and in the first moments of the second half, Brooks found himself defending James as he dribbled upcourt. That’s when instead of going for a steal, Brooks hit James in the groin. Again, there is technically a case to be made that Brooks was only trying to play defense and was not trying to hit James. However, Brooks was not fooling anybody, not even the referees who reviewed the play and then ejected him from the game. Brooks, like Embiid, managed to avoid further suspension. This is not to equate the two incidents, though, as Embiid’s is clearly the more egregious.
The NBA continues to entertain beyond just basketball, and I am here for the rivalry and drama, as long as the league rules fairly. If you find yourself wanting to experience the chaos yourself, the playoffs run until mid-June. They usually deliver, one way or another.