- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin engaged in some form of athletic competition Sunday afternoon in Memphis. Taken out of context, without the court and the ball and the uniforms, your guess about what they were doing would have been as good as mine. Pankration, maybe?
It's probably not too crazy to assume that wearing a guy around like a backpack, the way Griffin wore Randolph, wasn't what the forefathers had in mind when they hung the first peach basket. (And if they had, they undoubtedly would have suggested a foul be called.) Intended or not, though, the increased pushing, shoving and grabbing is threatening to render the NBA playoffs a lot less watchable.
Oh, but it's playoff basketball, you say. The intensity ramps up, the game gets more physical and nothing comes for free. If it ends up with a tangle of bodies on the floor while the game tries to happen around them? Shrug and move on. Just part of the game.
Some of that is fine, and understandable. On an open drive to the hoop, players expect to be challenged. Guys who can't shoot free throws, like Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, pay for it in the postseason.
At least Hack-a-Shaq was a legitimate strategy. What Randolph did to Griffin, and vice but not quite versa, is illegal in some states. He grabbed, pulled, held and climbed. At one point, they engaged in a mutual clotheslining.
Griffin described the series with the Grizzlies as guys "out there hitting people and hoping you didn't get a foul called." Playoff basketball shouldn't turn a graceful, sometimes elegant game into UFC/NBA. It shouldn't be a license for some of the world's best athletes to tackle each other for the perceived offense of boxing out.
Watch these games -- and every series has had its MMA moments -- and it's immediately laughable to think that flopping is the current scourge du jour in the NBA. True, guys are falling down all over the place, lifted off their feet by the force of nothing stronger than a puff of stagnant arena air, but it's misguided for the league to concentrate so much attention on plays that offend for their lack of contact.
The first order of business, far more important than making sure Shane Battier and Derek Fisher don't trick another ref into calling a few unwarranted charges, should be cleaning up the rasslin' around the hoop.
The danger is obvious: It's going to get worse as the postseason heads toward June. It seems inevitable that scores will get lower and contact more aggressive as the games start to mean more. What can be done? Here's something you hear as often as playoff basketball: Refs can't call everything. Well, yes they can -- or close to it. Maybe they can't call every hand-check on the perimeter, or every rough push through a pick, but they definitely can call a foul every time one power forward goes for a ride on another power forward's back. And they can call the repeated grabbing and shoving inside, on post-ups and rebound positioning, because until they call it it's not going to stop.
The players are smart: they'll find the line and take what is given. As Griffin and Randolph proved, the line needs to be moved.
It's entirely possible we're seeing a reversion to the thug-and-mug tactics first made unpopular by teams like the Knicks and Pistons in the late 1980s and early '90s. Offensive flow is inconsistent at best, and guys like Reggie Evans have never been more valuable. (Except when he's on the free throw line.) And whether it's related to the style of play, the compressed season or mere coincidence, injuries to significant players are cropping up in nearly every series. Collisions are inevitable, but what if Kevin Durant's knee had been in the way of the Metta World Peace-James Harden tumble in Game 1 Monday night?
Fuses are short, and justifiably so. Griffin seemed to play the Memphis series on the verge of either crying or snapping. He's beginning to develop a reputation as a complainer, but watching how the Grizzlies manhandled him, it's easy to see why he gets frustrated. It doesn't help his cause that he is utterly devoid of the talents that would allow him to step away from the hoop and avoid the whole jumbled, frustrating mess. If he doesn't become a reliable shooter from 15-18 feet and continues to struggle at the line, he's going to be spending a lot of time grappling under the hoop.
NBA referees have a tough job under the best circumstances. In the playoffs, it's close to impossible. No, they can't call everything. But if they call most things, or at least make it a priority to call the most egregious things, the game will adjust. The younger officials, who appear to have emerged from the same factory, need to summon some of the officiousness of past refs and take control of the games.
Because right now the players are operating under the same principle as the referees: Hey, they can't call everything.
8hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann