Back a decade ago, when all hell broke loose at the old Miami Arena, Rod Thorn understood his judgment promised to change the course of the Heat-Knicks series. New York had control three games to two in the conference semifinals, and its best player, Patrick Ewing, had simply stood at mid-court and watched the melee. And yet, for all the posturing and pleading, the video turned out to be the truth-teller.
There were no punches thrown, but five Knicks were suspended in those 1997 playoffs. The Knicks were doomed, lessons learned under the harshest of circumstances.
"That was an extremely difficult (decision), real, real tough," said Thorn, who had worked under Commissioner David Stern as the NBA's VP of basketball operations in those days. "We had a hard and fast rule. There were a lot of problems of players coming off the bench and becoming involved in fights and we needed to eradicate that. We made a rule, and for a time, people kept coming off the bench and getting suspended. But they learned, and you seldom ever see it anymore.
"But now, it's really an aberration when you see it."
After New Jersey’s loss to Cleveland, Thorn watched the end of Suns-Spurs Game 4 late Monday night in his suburban New York home. Hours later, the Nets president wished to leave his league office successor, Stu Jackson, with the public proclamations of guilt or innocence for Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. Someone else’s job now, someone else’s headache.
Nevertheless, as precedence goes, the commissioner has no choice: Stoudemire and Diaw must be suspended for the Western Conference semifinals Game 5 on Wednesday night. As Thorn understood a decade ago, Stern and Jackson know now: It has to be irrelevant that suspending the Suns star forward, Stoudemire could crush his team's championship chances.
The NBA's rule on leaving the bench has long been one of its most unforgiving, most rigid: If you leave the bench area for a fight, you get suspended.
Of course, the Suns are irate. All series, the Spurs pushed them, and pushed, and when Robert Horry completely crossed the line, it's the Suns who'll probably pay the steepest price. There was no punishment for Bruce Bowen kicking Stoudemire in his Achilles in Game 2, nor kneeing Steve Nash in the groin in Game 3.
So when Horry delivered a downright devastating blow to Nash in the late moments of the Suns' stirring Game 4 victory, sending him crashing into the scorer's table, it is still somehow that Spurs walking away, cackling, outsmarting the Suns again.
After the incident, Stoudemire tried floating a fantasy that, on the order of coach Mike D'Antoni, he was running to the scorer's table to check back into the game. The video disputes that, as does logic. First of all, D'Antoni was too busy exploding over the hit on Nash to be communicating with Stoudemire. And more than that, Stoudemire, with five fouls, had been shuttling in and out for offense and defense. Nash was going to the free-throw line, so the ball was going back to San Antonio. That isn't when Stoudemire would've re-entered the game.
No, Stoudemire and Diaw reacted the way most players do: They took several steps toward the gathering scrum at mid-court. Stoudemire never made it to where Horry and Raja Bell briefly entangled, but by the time the Suns assistants had grabbed hold and dragged him back, it was too late.
Stoudemire had gone too far. So had Diaw. Yes, the Suns could live without him, but Stoudemire is essential to a telltale Game 5 at home. The NBA will probably sacrifice Horry for a game, but that isn't much of a trade for Phoenix.
For now, the Suns are trying to use the defense that Stoudemire and Diaw never engaged any Spurs, never escalated the episode. Along those lines, the Suns' best defense – the NBA's best out on this issue – is that there was no fight on the floor. Horry was ejected for the flagrant foul, and Bell wasn't charged with a fighting foul.
Still, those arguments are mostly born out of wishful thinking. Nobody wants to see this series blown up with suspensions, wants it decided with the Suns star sitting. Truth be told, this Spurs-Suns series is the best thing going in these NBA playoffs, the most intriguing series left for us. Outside of the Warriors beating Dallas, of Derek Fisher's inspirational night, where else does high-drama await in the next month?
Ten years ago, everyone wanted to excuse the Knicks' impulse for leaving the bench, because that rule was so new, the punishments for violation so untested. Now, a decade later, there should've been no mystery to Phoenix. Whatever the emotion, whatever human nature, they had to know that for even a momentary lapse of judgment, they were responsible for the Suns' season.
For Amare Stoudemire, this could turn out to be the harshest lesson for life as a franchise player. Ten years later, nothing should change in the league office: The video is still the truth-teller.