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Friday, May 10, 2013
Dirty, dumb and ugly

By Henry Abbott

Chris Andersen, Marco Belinelli
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Hard intentional fouls have helped to make Chris Andersen one of the NBA's most effective players.

On the first play of Wednesday night's Game 2, Nate Robinson used basketball skills to get himself a nice look at the bucket.

Then he used football skills -- taking a minute lying face down, controlling breathing, making sure all the bits and pieces were working -- to haul himself up off the floor after Udonis Haslem's hard intentional foul.

The game was 12 seconds old.

On the very next play, Robinson's teammate Marco Belinelli was badly beaten in the open court. So he made what coaches everywhere agree is the right basketball play, even if it is more accurately a football play. At full-speed, he wrapped his arms around the about-to-score Dwyane Wade from behind. Wade was so angry he turned and hurled the ball at Belinelli hard enough to get a technical foul to go with Belinelli's common foul.

21 seconds. Three intentional fouls.

This game is great. I love this game. This game is broken.

People are mad at the referees for marring Game 2 with nine technical fouls, two ejections, 40 free throws and 51 fouls. But they're just the poor suckers filling sandbags, trying to keep the town from flooding. The deluge ... it's coming from the league office. And more specifically, from a rulebook that rewards teams with wins for hitting each other hard.

The math (discussed in much more detail in a new ESPN the Magazine article): When a player beats his man and is about to score fair-and-square, the smart defensive move is a hard foul to erase any chance of a bucket, and send him to the line.

This is Tackle Basketball

It's not what the league says they want. David Stern is on record saying the game at its best is about "artistry;" V.P. of Basketball operations Stu Jackson says his department loses sleep trying to keep the game from returning the brutal days of the 1990s. And yet the math that causes this ugliness comes from one place and one place only: Their rulebook. The stuff that wins in this league nullifies artistry, mars the "beautiful game," and certainly increases the likelihood of injury. What works to win games is intentionally fouling people hard at the moment they're about to do the kinds of spectacular things that make the game a success.

After Game 2 ESPN's Michael Wallace wrote: "Chris Andersen entered the game seemingly with the sole purpose to deliver blows and to instigate."

The very same Chris Andersen who has the playoffs' highest rating, of all players in the NBA, by the sophisticated measure of adjusted plus/minus. (Several strategic-foulers -- Shane Battier, Tyson Chandler, Lance Stephenson -- are among the most effective players in these playoffs.) What that means is that while these players are on the floor doing their things, their teams are building leads.

As we've discussed before, Tackle Basketball is real and effective. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James know all about it and this season have taken the unusual step of complaining publicly about being fouled too hard. It works because those intentional fouls come when a basket is almost certain. Not only does it turn two certain points into two less certain free throws, but there's also evidence to suggest it intimidates players from driving to the hoop much. Drives are incredibly effective. So, in other words, part of the reason the Heat are so good with Chris Andersen on the floor may be because people are scared he'll hurt them when they drive in there. That's part of the strategy.

But let's not get stuck arguing whether this is real team-wide strategy or not. Of course it is! When James had a fast break bucket coming, the Bulls predictably wrapped him up from behind, instantly prompting boos from the Miami fans and chest-to-chest posturing from players.  "If you're Daequan Cook," Steve Kerr explained on TNT, as referees separated angry players on the court, "you have to grab LeBron. He's so strong."

We're not used to even thinking about it, but there is one other option: To play legal defense to the best of your abilities, going for the block, the strip, the contest ... and leave it at that. The results of actually playing defense are always better to watch: fans will get to see a dunk, a block, a steal ... something that's actually basketball, and something more artful than a rattled and woozy player shooting free throws.

Don't forget: Fouling is a common part of the game, but it's not, strictly speaking, a permitted part of the game. The rulebook expressly forbids those kinds of contact, even though we, as fans, have come to see them as normal.

Players, Kerr is saying, owe it to their teams to break the rules. He speaks for somewhere close to 30 out of 30 head coaches, who want to keep that tactic around to help their teams win.

Could there ever be a clearer indication that the penalty for breaking this particular rule is not severe enough?

Players don't want to be called "dirty" players

Here's an oddity of this debate, however, and perhaps an opening.

Hard fouls may be buffeted by an infinite supply of apologists. For instance: "This is old school basketball," said Shaquille O'Neal on TNT at halftime. "No layups. Hard fouls. And nothing that could hurt anyone. It’s good, clean basketball.”

And yet ... it's fascinating how important it is to all involved to keep it "clean," at least in name.

Even as he's selling the virtue of hammering somebody, O'Neal is also co-signing the idea it's important for players to play "clean."

My best guess is he means what many have told me: That the hard fouls we see in these playoffs are not players with bad character going rogue. They are, instead, part of time-worn team-wide strategy. In other words, this is what the coach wants -- and it's no good yelling at a player for following orders or executing good team strategy.

But that doesn't mean everyone is really okay with all that happens on the court. Larry Bird is seen as one of the great "old school" players. Recently he gave Bill Simmons an interview in which he complained bitterly, decades later, about Bill Laimbeer's tactics. Kurt Rambis will tell anyone who'll listen that what Kevin McHale did to him in the Finals -- widely considered one of the most successful "playoff fouls" ever, credited with deciding the 1984 championship -- crossed a line.

Plenty of people -- nearly every player and coach -- is proud to be identified as a practitioner of good, hard, playoff fouls. But I've yet to find one who can tolerate being called "dirty." It's like being called "fat" or "lazy." These are labels nobody wants.

So if we all agree that there is a line you cannot cross, then we just need to figure out where that line should be to make this the best game possible.

We can have any game we want. The plays that end in ugly fouls now, but that could result in thrilling basketball -- the league, its owners and the competition committee can make that happen whenever it wants. All it's going to take is punishing hard intentional fouls with a more powerful deterrent than two free throws.