After the Oklahoma City Thunder had rolled up a 19-point lead in the third quarter of their hotly contested Western Conference matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday afternoon, L.A. was determinedly forcing its way back into the proceedings. A 4 1/2-minute 10-2 run got the Clips within two points midway through the fourth quarter, and despite a quick 8-3 spurt keyed by Russell Westbrook to give the Thunder some breathing room, the Clippers still had a puncher's chance of making one more late push ... until one OKC puncher took a chance that, unfortunately, paid off.
We pick it up with just under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, L.A. down six and Blake Griffin having just boxed out Serge Ibaka for a potential offensive rebound of a Matt Barnes corner 3-point attempt:
Yeah, that sure looks like Ibaka — having been beaten to the spot by the Clippers All-Star — pushes down Griffin's right hand with his own, then pulls it back and chops downward at Griffin's groin. I mean, it's not quite as blatant a low blow as the one that Nicolas Batum laid on Juan Carlos Navarro during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but it's at least as blatant as the one that DeMarcus Cousins delivered to O.J. Mayo back in December. And if you believe neither me nor your lying eyes, maybe you'll listen to one of the smartest and sharpest basketball minds we've got.
"In my opinion, this is an easy call. Easy call by the referees," ABC color commentator Hubie Brown said.
After huddling up to watch multiple replays and discuss the play, officials Dan Crawford, Derrick Collins and Kevin Cutler elected to call Ibaka for a flagrant foul-1, which penalizes "unnecessary" contact, granting the Clippers two shots and the ball ... but not a flagrant foul-2, which marks out "unnecessary and excessive" contact, which brings not only the free throws and possession, but also the automatic ejection of the fouler. They also could have termed it a "punching foul," technically, which also would have merited ejection, but I guess what might look like a downward punching motion to one observer might seem like a ridge-hand chop or something to another. (There's relatively little in the way of language distinguishing martial arts maneuvers in the NBA rulebook.)
That means, of course, that Ibaka was able to stay in the game, which wound up mattering.
Barnes made the 3 prior to the foul, Griffin made one of two from the line and Jamal Crawford hit another 3 on the ensuing possession, locking down a seven-point trip that gave the Clippers a 100-99 lead. On the next OKC possession, Ibaka flashed to the top of the key to set a screen for Westbrook — while Russ dribbled away from it, Barnes knew it was coming and stopped his feet getting ready for it, giving Westbrook a split-second that allowed him to get to the rim for a layup that took back the lead.
And after Chris Paul missed a tough runner in the lane and Blake Griffin's tip-in was waved off for going over the back of Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, Ibaka worked a screen-and-roll with Westbrook to get into the paint for a layup, drawing Griffin's sixth foul and hitting the free throw to give OKC a four-point lead that the Thunder wouldn't relinquish, hanging on for a 108-104 win. Ibaka finished with 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting, three rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes. Griffin ended up with 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists before fouling out in 32 minutes.
After the game, Ibaka said he didn't mean to harm Griffin, but also claimed self-defense ... well, sort of. Kind of. We think? I'm not sure exactly what he's saying in this quote, from John Rohde of the Oklahoman:
“He hit my hands away,” Ibaka told reporters afterward. “He's strong, so when he grabs you, your jersey or whatever, and you try to defend yourself and rebound. So maybe you can do some move, not to hurt, [but] just to get good position, but then something happens where you get hurt in the paint. It's not anything where I want to try to hurt him. I'm not that kind of person. I just try to play hard, and that's it.
“I just tried to play hard. I really don't care if someone is dirty or not, that's not my problem. His game was intense. We all were complaining to the referees [about] some dirty stuff. It's basketball. We just played. If you can see the replay, you can see he grabbed my jersey first so I wanted to try to defend myself, [but] not to hurt him.”
OK — to be fair, yes, you can see in the replay that Griffin does have a piece of Ibaka's jersey with his right hand. That's true, and I can imagine that's frustrating. Plus, it was, as multiple players said after the game, a very physical contest with the interior bigs doing a lot of banging and scrapping throughout. Still: This wasn't a case of "something happens where you get hurt in the paint." This was Ibaka responding to the jersey grab by swinging his arm at Blake's nards. Playing hard is one thing; going low on somebody's another.
Either way, the refs apparently saw it as just the cost of doing business under the boards, and while Clippers fans might have an argument when they claim that Ibaka shouldn't have been in the game to foul Griffin out and convert that huge late 3-point play, they'd do well to remember that the Clips turned the ball over 16 times in the first half leading to 17 Thunder points as they built their big lead ... careless possessions and points given up in the early going count just as much in the final analysis, too.
The more interesting thing is what the league office decides to do about Ibaka's swing. Cousins got a one-game suspension for his hit on Mayo, and Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade got one game for his below-the-belt kick on Charlotte Bobcats point guard Ramon Sessions earlier this season, too. If league disciplinary czar Stu Jackson holds true to form, OKC could very well be without Ibaka for their Tuesday night home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Video via Beyond the Buzzer.