The Houston Rockets and their fans are breathing sighs of relief on Tuesday night. NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn announced that Dwight Howard's flagrant foul-1 from Monday's Game 4 victory over the Golden State Warriors will stand as called, and will not be upgraded to a flagrant-2.
As a result, the Rockets center will not be forced to serve a one-game suspension, and will be eligible to suit up for Houston in Wednesday's Game 5 at Oracle Arena, where Howard and his teammates will once again attempt to stave off elimination after losing the first three games of the Western Conference finals.
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Howard's flagrant came with just over eight minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 4, with the Rockets holding an 11-point lead over the Warriors:
As Rockets forward Josh Smith attempted to post up Warriors counterpart Draymond Green, Howard and Golden State center Andrew Bogut — who have been battling tooth and nail throughout this series — again clashed on the opposite block. Bogut reached his right hand out to brace against Howard, who responded by swatting Bogut's hand away; the Aussie, in turn, delivered a two-handed shove to Howard in the lane and held onto his left arm. Howard saw Bogut's efforts and raised, swinging his left arm backward and clocking Bogut in the chops.
The referees blew the play dead, and Joey Crawford headed to the courtside replay monitor to review the play. After looking it over multiple times, the officials decided to give Howard a flagrant-1, assessed for "unnecessary" contact, rather than a flagrant-2, the penalty for "unnecessary and excessive" contact, according to the league's rulebook.
Had Howard received a flagrant-2, he would have been automatically ejected from Game 4. Moreover, he would have been forced to serve a one-game suspension for committing a flagrant-2 after having already accrued two flagrant foul points earlier this postseason. (A flagrant-1 gives you one flagrant point; a flagrant-2 carries two. Pick up more than three flagrant points in a single postseason, and you're riding the pine for the next game.)
Instead, he was allowed to remain in Game 4, which he finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 34 minutes, holding the Warriors to 1-for-7 shooting at the rim when he was defending.
After the game, Howard claimed no malice and no intent to injure on the controversial play.
"I don't mean to do anything intentional, to hurt anybody on the floor," he said. "My reaction was just to get away from him, and I was glad I didn't hit him [...] My reaction was to try to get him off me, but I can't react that way. Just try to do my best to get away from the situation as quick as possible."
Upon further review, Dwight definitely hit Bogut, but now that league disciplinarian Thorn has elected not to upgrade the foul to a flagrant-2, he'll be able to start in the middle for Kevin McHale's crew as they try to keep their season alive on Wednesday.
The NBA shared Thorn's explanation on Tuesday evening.
"Howard was trying to extricate himself from Bogut and recklessly hit him in the face with an open hand," Thorn's statement reads. "The contact was unnecessary but was not deemed excessive by the officials working the game with the aid of the replay center. And we don't see a reason to modify that call."
In elaborating a bit on his decision to leave well enough alone, and his determination that Howard's strike on Bogut wasn't as serious as the deemed-ejection-worthy-elbow that Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford dropped on Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavedova during Cleveland's win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Thorn seemed to take Howard's post-game comments about not trying to hurt anybody at face value, according to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com:
"It was a very close call as far as I'm concerned," Thorn said. "As Bogut is holding his arm down, Howard tries to extricate his arm. He doesn't hit him with his elbow, by the way. He hits him with the back of his hand, maybe a touch of the wrist. To me, it was unnecessary, but I didn't think it was excessive." [...]
"What differentiated it as far as I'm concerned was Dwight's contact was in part to extricate himself from the situation with Bogut," Thorn said. "It was unnecessary and deserved a flagrant-1. Horford's contact was in retaliation for what he felt Dellavedova had done to him, and to me fit the criteria for unnecessary and excessive."
Thorn's predecessor in league disciplinary matters, former NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, apparently finds Thorn's explanation stunning and incorrect:
Baffled #Howard contact was not upgraded to FFP2. Hard contact to face, reckless, released arm and flailed for free head shot and history.
— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) May 26, 2015
As you watch the actions preceding Howard's left-hand swing, the interpretation that he wasn't retaliating to what he felt Bogut had done to him seems awfully generous. Even if Thorn's right on the money about what Dwight meant, though, making a judgment based on perceived intent rather than what actually happened in the paint seems an inconsistent application of the rules, especially considering Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith received a two-game suspension for a very similar backward swing that connected with the face of Boston Celtics swingman Jae Crowder earlier this postseason.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr noted the evidently shifting sands of league punishment on such matters when asked about the play during his team's Tuesday practice.
"I mean, [Howard] elbowed him in the head, so I don't really know what the rule is," Kerr told reporters. "I'm not sure anyone really knows what the rule is. Seriously, it just seems like every case is a little different. There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer, and there is a lot of gray area in all these plays, so I understand that. I didn't really know what to expect."
McHale, unsurprisingly, offered a different take on the incident during his team's Tuesday practice.
"[Howard] just tried to get [Bogut] off him," McHale said. "Bogut is just grabbing him and, as always, the second foul gets called. He didn’t turn around and look at the guy like, 'I’m going to' — he swipes his arm back because he felt Bogut is grabbing him. But again, in our league, it's been that way since I first got in the league. They usually call the second one all the time.
"I guess the one thing we'll learn is that we should be the first one to grab," he added.
In terms of consistent application of rules and punishment, the argument that Howard should've been both sent off and held out of Game 5 sure seems to hold water. In terms of in-game justice, you can understand the league office not necessarily wanting to reward Bogut's well-chronicled dark arts. And in the context of this particular situation, you can understand the NBA wanting to sidestep the inevitable hue and cry that would emanate from Houston should Howard be held out of an elimination game thanks to a retroactive increase in penalty over what was handed out on the floor.
In sum: pretty much everything about the way this was handled, from the call on the floor to the explanation of the decision to do nothing after the fact, seems likely to leave at least some segment of the population invested in the outcome of this series pretty ticked off. NBA discipline, everybody! Enjoy Game 5!
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