Atlanta Hawk Marvin Williams was moving with a full head of steam, just about to launch for the rim. Things were looking good for a spectacular play. Williams is faster, longer, lighter and more athletic than the lone Celtic defender in the play, Boston's Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
Williams started to launch, and Davis did one of the cheaper things a defender can do: He ripped Williams to the floor by his head and neck. (It wasn't the cheapest thing a player can do -- like what Williams himself did once -- Davis at least fouled Williams on the ground, before he got high into the air and the physics got dangerous. Nevertheless, Williams was in for a hard landing.)
Davis held his right hand up, as if he were playing defense -- but every bit of the play that mattered came with the left.
He was called for the milder of the two kinds of flagrants. Who thinks that was a horrible call? Tommy Heinsohn for one. Doc Rivers and Armond Hill are two more. However, is there anyone not on the Celtics payroll who can muster outrage that the foul was called a flagrant? Especially when Zaza Pachulia had been called for a flagrant earlier in the game, for stopping a layup with a somewhat analagous play to Kendrick Perkins' face?
CelticsHub blogger Zach Lowe didn't like the call, but even he had a hard time getting irate: "It was a bad call. But when the refs see a defender reach across a fast-breaking player’s shoulders and head, make some contact and force that player to the ground? You’ll get a flagrant once in a while."
(Just because Rajon Rondo once avoided the flagrant while with hitting someone in the head on the way to the hoop in last year's playoffs, doesn't mean that's actually the right call.)
Somebody should write a thesis -- a video thesis -- about how the Celtics use hard fouls, tactically, to make themselves a better defensive team. It works! The Celtics are a very tough and physical defensive team. I don't think anyone would argue that they employ all the tactics: Making players think twice about attacking the rim, getting the most out of their fouls, tricking referees into not noticing things they do, fouling twice on the same play (after you're called for the first foul, you get a free shot), and every other veteran trick out there.
Big Baby has done this precise thing before. There was that famous Rajon Rondo blow to Brad Miller's face. The list goes on and on.
And, here's where it gets tricky: There are a zillion examples of NBA players risking injury to the other team. The Celtics are not alone in that, but those kinds of plays are especially noticeable from this team and, I bet that thesis would find, more common.
Just from last night alone, late in the third quarter, Paul Pierce stopped a Jamal Crawford fast break not by wrapping him up. Not by trying to block the shot. But by hitting him in the back with his right arm, and the arm with his left. With 2:47 left in the game, Crawford had the ball again on the break, and after Rondo took a stab at him at halfcourt, Crawford was capsized by Pierce diving into his body. The Hawks got a bucket off a pass from the falling Crawford, but no foul was called. Shortly after that, Williams got a fairly routine rebound and then fell over -- on video you can see Ray Allen hitting Williams with both arms, which appears to lead to the fall.
None of those things are terrible. They're all part of basketball once in a while. But a play like Davis's, with no attempt to actually block the shot, it's ugly if it fits a pattern.