It seems like ancient history now, but way back on Sunday, something sinister happened. Late in the fourth quarter of a suddenly competitive afternoon matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, Serge Ibaka and Blake Griffin entangled themselves in a fierce battle for position. It was intense, but no more so than your standard issue low-post struggle—that is, until Ibaka took matters (and then some) into his own hands. Perhaps the worst and most widely used euphemism for what happened was “groin altercation,” which every male viewer can agree sells it pretty preposterously short.
The low blow left Griffin cringing in pain. Meanwhile, the refs left Ibaka in the game. Clearly, Ibaka should have been ejected—what, exactly, were the refs looking at during that video review?—but he wasn’t, and his subsequent and-one and late-game defense were vital to the Thunder’s winning effort. And his tongue-jetted applause when Griffin missed one of his free throws added insult to injury.
On Tuesday, the league announced that it would fine Ibaka $25,000 and that his foul would be upgraded to a Flagrant 2. He would not be suspended. All of which is rather silly. If it had been handled properly—if Ibaka had just been ejected at that moment—then he wouldn’t have needed a suspension (or even a fine), and none of the handwringing about intent or character or prior altercations (groin or otherwise) would have taken place.
Matt Barnes didn’t mince words on the topic:
You can INTENTIONALLY grab or hit someone in the balls & not get suspended, but you push someone & get suspended. #ImConfused
— Matt Barnes (@Matt_Barnes22) March 5, 2013
— Matt Barnes (@Matt_Barnes22) March 5, 2013
I’m confused as well. It’s standard operating procedure for leagues to take prior transgression into account when levying punishment or assessing intent. And sure, intent is murky territory—though I’m at a loss for what else Ibaka could have intended. And regardless of whether Ibaka’s a great guy (he probably is) with a compelling life story (he certainly has one), for at least a week or two, isn’t his reputation shaped by what he just did?
Now strictly speaking, point of punitive action against Ibaka (or any player who crosses a line) isn’t to benefit his victim. But should it be? As Kevin Arnovitz suggested on this week’s Clippers Podcast, should Ibaka have been suspended not for the Thunder’s game against the Lakers, but specifically for their next Clipper game?
For now the league doesn’t think so. Player sanctions—fines, ejections, suspensions, etc.—are designed to promote player safety and de-incentivize foul play. But considering the Thunder got the win on Sunday, and got Ibaka back in action for the next game, where’s the disincentive?
Let’s be honest about something: Blake gets under people’s skin. His face has been described as “punchable.” And since his college days, the scouting report on him has been: push him around, knock him down, and you can beat him. Picture Zach Randolph’s WWE style rumbles with Griffin. Roughing up Blake to slow him down is not only a sound approach, but with the way he’s progressed, it’s become an imperative strategy. Griffin is aware of it, and adapting. But the karate chop to his groin represents taking this rough-him-up tactic to its absurd extreme. Obviously there’s no conspiracy against Griffin—he’s an NBA darling—but a feckless response from the league is at least a tacit endorsement of the approach.
That said, for the Clippers, the league’s reaction is far less important than Blake’s. Sure, he was stunned, and his deadpan was in full effect with a nod to his Kia campaign and a bit of deft advice for his childhood self: wear a cup. And his real response came the other night, when he played his most impressive game of the year. Engaged on defense, demonstrating uncanny court vision, and unleashing his best in-game dunk-show since his rookie year against the Knicks, Blake dropped a triple double. And he did it against a legitimate defensive player-of-the-year candidate in Larry Sanders.
Griffin couldn’t stop the low blow from happening, and he couldn’t control how the league handled it. But Wednesday night, he rose above it.
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