NEW YORK — What does it take to get fired in the NBA these days?
No really. What will it take? Does anyone know anymore?
It’s not an existential question for the NBA, but it’s a perplexing one. After these 96 hours, no one can say for sure.
Draymond Green was ejected on Monday for hitting Tomantas Sabonis, and yes, okay, that makes sense. Usually Stone Cold Steve Austin is the only one who gets paid to get away with it if someone is in a slush.
But on Thursday night in Brooklyn, Joel Embiid didn’t try to kick where Nick Claxton was left unkicked. Well, I can give a kind of circular explanation about that. In our current age of haute couture, we have seen very strong departures from logical consistency.
But how do you explain what happened after a few quarters with James Harden? Is it a deadly 2 and an ejection? A nudge, a pudge and all to get some separation from Royce O’Neill. That’s what got him tossed in Game 3 of this 76ers-Nets series.
“Based on the point of direct contact with the pelvis, it rose to the point of excess and discharge,” said referee Tony Brothers.
“I didn’t hit him in the privates,” Harden protested. “Someone pulls you defensively like that, it’s a natural basketball reaction. I didn’t hit him enough that he went down like that. For a clear 2, it’s unacceptable. It’s a playoff game. You’ve seen it all over the league, worse things than that play — honestly, it was. I don’t think that’s a mistake. It’s unacceptable. It can’t happen.”
So, again, we ask, what does it take to be eliminated from a playoff game in the NBA these days? Seriously, does anyone know?
“No, I don’t know what Exodus 2 is,” said Doc Rivers. “I was surprised by James, but listen, they looked at it. They made the call. You have to live with it. The authorities are trying to fix it.
They are. Nobody said referees were tanking. Official business is tough. It is thankless. It’s one of the few jobs in the game where the best way to find people who are good at their job is if you can’t find one.
Still, that’s a problem. This week was a highlight. There have been calls and non-calls. A chorus of discontent from players trying to play within the rules wondering if the rules are what they think they are.
The biggest issue facing the league right now, the players themselves say, is refereeing. That’s what they told us Athletic’s NBA Player Poll. That survey was completed before we even started the postseason.
Gamers aren’t the only ones who get frustrated. Coaches too. Rivers played in the 1990s. For the Knicks. Yes, he has seen some things. He played once A game with six outs, including him. When it comes to hard fouls and ejections, Rivers may not be Justice Stewart, but he knows them when he sees them.
Nets coach Jack Vaughn was perplexed when Embiid was in the game in the first quarter after mildly kicking Claxton between the legs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before in my life,” Vaughn said. “I’ve never seen someone in a game deliberately kicked in an area that none of us want to be kicked or targeted for him to continue playing. And one boy continues to play. On purpose.”
Embiid barely escaped the ejection because he couldn’t hit Claxton hard in the right spot. The brothers gave so much information. He told a pool reporter that Embiid’s kick was not considered a flagrant 2 because it hit Claxton.
“The point of contact dictates that it’s only unwanted contact,” he said. “And not too much, so yes.”
Embiid missed eight other shots Thursday night, but that may have been the only scene where the 76ers were happy.
Harden, on the other hand, was too confused to watch the fourth quarter from the Sixers locker room. He said he didn’t even hit O’Neill in the wrong place. It had the sound of a makeup ejection.
And, no, he doesn’t know what kind of plays he’s going to get called anymore.
“I have no idea,” he said. “But, like I say, where there’s no hostile action, it’s unacceptable to get my first ejection on some play like that. I’ve seen other calls and other plays and things like that — but come on, man.”
He wasn’t the only one thrown this night. Claxton was also sent. He dunked on Embiid twice and celebrated more each time. First, he stood over Embiid, which led to the kick, which led to technicals for Embiid and Claxton. In the second, fourth quarter, after another slam on him, he was looking at Embiid. Embiid begged the refs to all “T” him, how they forgot, and if not disappointed he made the sign. At least no one seems to have a problem with that decision.
Now the 76ers and Nets wait to see what the league office has to say. Will there be repercussions beyond Thursday night?
It’s unclear whether Embiid or Harden will be suspended for their indiscretions. Again, it was surprising that Green had to sit out Game 3. His punishment, by the NBA’s approval, was specific to Green.
Joe Dumars, the league’s executive vice president and president of basketball operations, laid the groundwork for ESPN. Not only did Green kick Sabonis, but he went kayfabe with the Sacramento crowd, certainly considering his long history. This act, “harmful conduct” and repeated offenses, Dumars ESPN, all guilty. Is the league going to survive the three-pronged test? If that’s a precedent, Embiid and Harden should be fine to play in Game 4 on Saturday. Dumarz acknowledged that if anyone but Green had done what he did Monday, there’s no way he would have been suspended.
Uncertainty does the NBA no favors. Basketball has been great so far this month. Even this game here, as fierce and different as it was, was still tense and exciting, a 102-97 Sixer win. But questions surrounding the referee lingered for a long time. They create divisions between players and refs and there is no peace; Many more problems.
When Embiid splashed his left leg between Claxton’s legs Thursday night and stayed in the game, the synchronicity for Green rose quickly. When Harden was sent out, it was even more confusing.
What does it take to get fired in the NBA these days? No one can say.
(Top photo of Royce O’Neill and James Harden: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)