The Milwaukee Bucks had a terrible, terrible evening on Friday night in Indianapolis. It wasn’t just that they lost to the division-leading Indiana Pacers by 24 points. It was the knowledge that the Pacers had gotten into their heads as they worked toward the win, and the resulting hot sports take to be derived that brings up a clear gap in play between the playoff-bound Bucks, and the division topping Pacers. Or even between the Bucks and the Chicago Bulls, who beat the Pacers the next evening.
Worse was the way the Bucks lashed out on their way to defeat. Mike Dunleavy Jr. was ejected for a dangerous and dirty foul on Pacers wing Gerald Green. And Bucks big man Larry Sanders, in a season that has seen him grow more and more ill-tempered as the year moves along, was ejected yet again for arguing with the referees. Watch:
This is, unfortunately, directly reminding of one of the NBA’s all-time hotheads in New York Knicks center Rasheed Wallace.
Wallace entered the league in 1995, and by most accounts seemed to be just another darn good power forward in a rookie class (with Kevin Garnett, Joe Smith, and Antonio McDyess) that was full of them. He erupted for 21 technical fouls in his first season with Washington, though, a staggering number for a rookie that didn’t even start. The trend continued in lesser numbers during his next few years in Portland, but it eventually blew up again to a point that by the time the fin de siècle came about Wallace was known for his technical foul problem as much as his fantastic all-around play.
It was the continuation of a long and combative (and still current, technically) career that would see Wallace routinely lead the league in Ts. Run down the list of any teammate from his time, from Portland to Atlanta to Detroit to Boston, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would regard this as a good thing. At best, all Rasheed’s teammates could do was feign ambivalence. Teammates loved the fact that Wallace was on the team (most, at least; Arvydas Sabonis and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje probably aren’t fans), but all those free points and ejections and referee weariness … it’s hard to get over.
Sanders didn’t receive a technical during his rookie year, and as Trey Kerby pointed out, "tried to fight all of the Pacers" in a game last year. He’s a starter, now, and his minutes per game have more than doubled to 27 a night. The Bucks, mindful of Sanders’ abilities and the way he’s cut his fouling tendencies (nearly three fouls for every 36 minutes played, a significant dip) would no doubt like to see Sanders regularly playing minute allotments in the mid-30s. But if all this increased exposure and playing time are going to result in these outbursts, something has to change.
Because, after a while, the refs truly will be out to get him. Not because they’ll enter an arena looking to go after that smart-mouthed Larry Sanders (either one of them), but because bias and prejudice can’t help but play a part. They’ll react instinctively to the guy they know that has done it before, and if Sanders’ technical worries extend past his current batch and into the playoffs, then he’ll be known to a national fair weather NBA audience more as the guy that has issues with the referees, and not the NBA’s leader in blocks per game and block percentage.
Which is why it has to stop, now. Sanders’ ejection from a few weeks back – one that saw him sarcastically give the thumbs-up sign to each ref as he left the floor – was hilarious. His whining after his Bucks lost a tough, emotional game a week and a half ago against Miami, though, exacerbated the problem. Now he’s complaining after dribbling into a stationary Roy Hibbert, a possible Defensive Player of the Year, and already receiving reputation calls as evidenced by his second T on Friday night.
His pocketbook, as a result, has suffered. Sanders has been fined $95,000 just this month because of a combination of a $50,000 fine he incurred after the Heat loss, and the penalties for each ejection and technical foul that come standard. He’s at 13 technical fouls on the year, with a 16th technical resulting in an NBA suspension by law; and if you don’t think he’s capable of picking up three more infractions over the Bucks’ final 13 games, understand that this is the same guy that racked up six of them (and three ejections) in nine days spread out over mid-March.
The money, even for someone working off of a rookie contract, isn’t a huge deal. And if Sanders is suspended for one of his team’s last games, it probably won’t matter. Milwaukee has all but officially wrapped up a playoff berth, and though there’s an outside chance the Bucks could overtake Boston for the seventh seed (the team is two games in back of the Celtics, with Kevin Garnett and Courtney Lee joining the ranks of the injured for the C’s), it’s still a bit of a long shot this late in the season. His ejection in the Heat game came after the game was more or less decided, and his ejection in the Pacer game came with Milwaukee down 10 to the NBA’s best defense, playing at home.
It’s the image that is in the most danger, here. Sanders can’t afford to be thought of as the next Rasheed Wallace moving forward, because while Bucks coach Jim Boylan was right to point out that refs don’t come to games with preconceived notions, referees can’t help but fall back on reputation sometimes when the technical recipient in question is still mouthing off a minute later.
At his best, and through some recent offensive follies, Sanders is a potent, game-changing player at his best and one of our favorite to watch. “Blocks” is the word that should come up first when you look up his name online, though, and not “ejection.” Now is the time to get to Larry Sanders, and tell him how frustrating he might be making the rest of his career if he doesn’t stop now.