Over the past two decades, the NBA has made some very clear efforts to rein in on-court altercations between players. When players push and shove, it's a safe bet that the central figures will both earn technical fouls, no matter if things threaten to become an actual fight. It's just the way it goes.
Those decisions have been motivated by several factors, most notably the effects on the league's image and the simple fact that physical violence isn't so great, and it's likely that it has been a positive development on balance. At times, though, referees' desire to guard against fights leads to fairly severe punishments that most definitely do not fit their crimes.
In Wednesday night's marquee matchup between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, Lance Stephenson served as one such victim. A little less than midway through the third quarter, Stephenson and Dwyane Wade were issued double technical fouls. The exact form of the incident was unclear, but Stephenson appeared to have been given his technical for stepping into the face of Mario Chalmers, which compelled Wade to shove him (the clear cause of his tech).
This technical proved key when, with just over 5:00 left in regulation and the Pacers up 74-72, Stephenson went to the basket and finished a tough lay-up to give his team a four-point lead. After the play, Stephenson celebrated with passion, didn't run back on defense particularly quickly, and said a few words into the face of Wade. He was given a second technical, earning an automatic ejection. Watch it below:
Wade was clearly happy with the result:
Luckily for the Pacers, they weathered Stephenson's absence and went on to win 84-83.
Whether you see Stephenson's ejection as an injustice could depend mostly on your rooting interest. Frankly, both his technicals were perfectly acceptable calls in isolation — each play is the sort of thing that earns such punishment in today's NBA. For that matter, Stephenson could deserve the brunt of the blame for his ejection, if only because he should have known that he had the first one and was risking such an outcome with any show of emotion.
However, it's another issue altogether to ask if any player deserves an ejection for these two actions. Historically, an ejection has been reserved for actions that disregard sportsmanship entirely — the player is kicked out because he has proven he doesn't know how to act like a professional. Yet Stephenson did these things in the midst of a hotly contested game between the East's obvious best teams — it's not as if he were acting significantly worse than many other players in this contest. What is the grounds for his ejection outside of adherence to the rulebook?
It's not worth making too big a deal of this ejection, because it happens rarely enough that it doesn't affect the result of too many games. (Blake Griffin's goofy ejection vs. the Warriors on Christmas comes to mind, but it's an outlier.) Nevertheless, it stands to reason that a league should want to have rules that are just, not simply those that have always existed. Perhaps, in an era in which the NBA has shown interest in issuing technical fouls for relatively minor infractions, it would make sense to change the automatic ejection rule to three techs instead of two. That would allow players more latitude to show emotion without risking a major mistake, while also penalizing their team with free throws when they do something the NBA doesn't like.
Again, it's statistically unlikely that a two-tech ejection will occur in a big game. But the risk is there, and such a thing turning the tide of a playoff game could be a major controversy. I'm not sure the minor risk is worth an even smaller reward.
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