With just more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter of Monday night's late game, a West Coast road affair against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Toronto Raptors were in trouble. (As they tend to be these days.) Injuries to top scorers Kyle Lowry (who hurt his right shoulder in a first-half fall) and Andrea Bargnani (who fell awkwardly while attempting a first-quarter dunk and injured his elbow) left Toronto with just nine healthy bodies on the bench. Short-handed, shooting 34 percent from the floor and already in dire straits, the Raps stared up at a 10-point deficit, in desperate need of a spark.
Of course, because this is life for a 4-17 team spinning its wheels and circling the drain, Raptors forward Amir Johnson responded by getting himself ejected, leaving the Raps with just eight available players to climb out of the 10-point hole, and then decided to ratchet things up in a way that's going to earn him a call from the commissioner's office.
Take a look:
The trouble starts with Portland's J.J. Hickson at the line after being fouled while grabbing an offensive rebound. After Hickson makes his first, referee David Jones grabs the ball to send it back over to Hickson for his second attempt. Johnson — by no means a hothead by reputation, which makes this all even weirder — comes off his spot on the block to grab it, too, as players will sometimes do for myriad reasons (to get an extra touch of the ball, an extra dribble in, etc.). Jones and Johnson proceed to have a little tug of war for the ball, which leds them to have words, which leads to Jones tossing Toronto's 25-year-old big man.
Which — and here's where it gets interesting — leads Johnson to freak out, make his way toward Jones to lob some more choice words the ref's way and then, while being held back by his teammates, go on to lob his mouthpiece at Jones, hitting the referee square in the back.
It was the third shot on which Johnson had connected in seven tries.
After the game — which, by the way, Portland won going away, 92-74, despite playing without starting two-guard Wesley Matthews and going 0 for 20 from 3-point range, setting an NBA record for most long-range attempts in a game without a make — Johnson explained his actions to reporters, including Anne M. Peterson of The Associated Press:
Johnson said he has a habit of rubbing the ball before handing it to the ref during free throws. While it appeared that the two had words, Johnson claimed nothing much was said.
He said he got frustrated when he wasn't given an explanation for the ejection.
"I guess the ref didn't let me have the ball so we kind of got into a tug of war," Johnson said. "No words were really said and he rejected me out of the game and I kind of lost my cool from there." [...]
"My teammates know me, my parents know me ... I never lose my cool. I never said anything to a ref or got mad," he said. "The only techs I've gotten were for hanging on the rim or slapping the backboard."
Johnson, who is in his eighth NBA season, is likely looking at a fine from the league for the incident. Following the game, however, he was contrite.
"I think it was just really childish. It was something that didn't need to happen," Johnson said. "I lost my cool and I apologize on my part."
It's understandable to be a man comfortable with certain routines and to be upset when those rhythms are interrupted by officials. But responding to that discomfort, displeasure and interruption by refusing to let go of the basketball when the referee wants to throw it back to the shooter is a bad choice, as is chucking one's spit-laden mouthguard at the back of a gentleman who, according to Basketball-Reference.com, turns 58 years old on Tuesday. Happy birthday, David Jones. Hope you like saliva.
Johnson will certainly face league discipline for his behavior; the only questions are how much it'll cost him, and whether it'll cost him any games.
Sacramento Kings guard Aaron Brooks got dinged $25,000 for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands after a Nov. 23 road loss to the Utah Jazz; Kirk Hinrich and Rashard Lewis have received similar fines for similar actions in the past, according to ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin. But considering this happened during the game and was directed at an official specifically rather than just as an undirected manifestation of distress, you'd imagine the league would look a bit more harshly on Johnson's heave; we can't just have players thinking they can cheaply toss wet pieces of mouthplastic at officials. Think of the nightly barrage Joey Crawford would receive.
No matter what the explanation or the eventual penalty, Toronto coach Dwane Casey's postgame assessment of the situation seems the most complete and accurate: "I don't know what happened with Amir. He kind of lost his mind there for a little bit."
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