The Memphis Grizzlies' slogan for these playoffs has been "We Don't Bluff," a reference to a semi-famous quote from Zach Randolph and an encapsulation of the toughness that's typified this team for the past three seasons. However, that distaste for play-acting was called into question for at least one key moment in their Game 2 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
With the score 85-81 in favor of San Antonio and 27 seconds left in regulation, Zach Randolph forced a steal from Manu Ginobili and passed ahead to Tony Allen, who seemed to have a clear path to the basket for a lay-up. Ginobili caught up, though, and pulled Allen down by his forearm as he rose up for the shot. Allen grabbed his head after crashing to the floor, which suggested that it was a serious foul.
The officials called a flagrant foul and headed over to the monitors to assess the severity. Replays showed a somewhat different picture of the action. While Allen did in fact hit the floor hard, his head never hit the ground. That indicates he bluffed, contrary to the Grizzlies' slogan. It worked, too — Allen nailed both free throws, Mike Conley hit a tough runner on the ensuing possession, and the Grizzlies forced overtime with the score tied at 85-85. The extra period wouldn't have happened if not for the flagrant.
This call didn't give the Grizzlies a win, but it has remained a topic of discussion after the game. With flopping and other forms of embellishment as unpopular as ever, there's a sense that Allen cheated to add five minutes to the game. Plus, as ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy argued in the immediate aftermath of the play, Ginobili didn't exactly strike Allen with the intent to injure. The foul looked bad in part because Allen was already in midair when Ginobili made contact with his arm. The goal was to stop the shot, not to hurt Allen.
I can't explain away Allen's acting, although Tim Duncan's post-game assessment that he was just trying to sell the call seems correct. However, I do strongly disagree with any attempt to discount the dangerous nature of the play with the argument that the fall shouldn't count. The NBA has expanded its definition of flagrant fouls in recent seasons with the goal of keeping players safe. While players like Ginobili certainly aren't actively trying to injure players at the rim, the fact is that certain kinds of plays are more dangerous than others. When a player gets airborne, he puts himself at the mercy of his opponents and the laws of physics. Grabbing an appendage in midair is dangerous in large part because the fall can cause injury. Effectively, the NBA is asking defenders to consider the context of their fouls, not just the contact itself. It's the same line of thinking that causes the rest of society to consider pushing someone near a cliff substantively different from pushing that same person in the middle of an open field.
There are arguments to be had as to whether players can exert this level of control over their bodies in these situations. A large number of fans also think that the league has gone soft and changed the character of what we know as Playoff Basketball, opting for increased safety over the visceral thrills of overtly physical competition. These are ultimately separate discussions built around what kind of league the NBA should be.
Because, under the NBA's now-standard enforcement of flagrant fouls, this play qualifies as a dangerous action with the potential to injure. Allen looked like he sold the contact beyond its apparent impact, but that doesn't mean the play was perfectly safe.
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