The NBA office has handed out a verdict on the most controversial play of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. Just before the 9:00 mark of the second quarter in Thursday night's contest, Heat center Chris Andersen and Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough engaged in a tussle that earned both players technical fouls. However, replays indicated that Andersen was the clear aggressor, getting in Hansbrough's face and pushing him in the chest with both hands. The Heat went on to win the game 90-79 and hold a 3-2 lead in the series.
At the time, it appeared that Andersen avoided ejection only because his push did not send Hansbrough to the floor. On Friday afternoon, the NBA weighed in on the matter by suspending Birdman for Saturday night's Game 6 in Indianapolis. From the official press release:
Miami Heat forward Chris Andersen has been suspended one game without pay and had his Flagrant Foul One upgraded to a Flagrant Foul Two, it was announced today by Stu Jackson, NBA Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.
Andersen knocked Indiana Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough to the floor, escalated the altercation by shoving Hansbrough, and resisted efforts to bring the altercation to an end. The incident occurred with 9:02 remaining in the second quarter of Miami's 90-79 win over the Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena.
On Friday, commissioner David Stern said that he thought Andersen's shove warranted an ejection and that the league would review the incident. From one perspective, it seems as if the NBA has essentially made up for the non-ejection by enforcing the penalty for Game 6. Based on precedent, Andersen probably should have been ejected for this incident, if only because Chicago Bulls big man Nazr Mohammed received that penalty for shoving LeBron James — who did fall to the floor — in Game 3 of their conference semifinals series. On Thursday, the officials effectively assigned punishment based on perceived impact rather than the action itself.
However, it's another question altogether as to whether assessing a suspension in lieu of a missed ejection represents a proper application of justice. At the time of the incident, Andersen had played roughly one-third of his 18 minutes for the game. Although he factored into Miami's eventual win, it's arguable that suspending Birdman for a massively important game does not fit the circumstances of the crime. After all, he played only 12 more minutes.
Nevertheless, the suspension is real and should have a major impact on Game 6. Andersen is averaging only 15.4 minutes per game in the postseason, but he's a game-changer for the Heat as an energetic big man who can cover lots of ground defensively and add much-needed height to the lineup to defend Pacers star center Roy Hibbert. On top of that, he hasn't missed a field goal attempt since Game 4 of the Bulls' series.
The Heat have struggled to defend Hibbert for long stretches of this series, and the absence of Birdman will only add to the difficulty of that task. The most compelling series of the playoffs so far just became even more interesting.