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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Updated: May 30, 12:57 PM ET
The tossed and the furious

By Pablo S. Torre
ESPN The Magazine

LeBron James
During the playoffs, rising player intensity has given way to bad intentions.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!

THE NBA RECORD book sees ejections as binary experiences -- either a player was booted or he wasn't -- and so too shall it regard the ill-fated postseason of J.R. Smith. On April 26, late in the third game of New York's first-round series against Boston, a frustrated Smith caught the ball with both hands, shielded it from the meddlesome swipe of Jason Terry, then swung his right elbow, hard, suddenly catching the Celtics guard in the chin. The knockdown, ruled the first flagrant-2 foul of these NBA playoffs, resulted in Smith's ejection, a compulsory one-game suspension and, for the seemingly inspired Knicks, the beginning of the end.

Pre-ejection, Smith, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, had been scoring 16.3 points a game on 43.5 percent shooting in the playoffs -- close to his season averages -- in helping the Knicks to a commanding 3-0 series lead against the Celtics. (The 27-year-old was so confident that when reporters asked whether he had learned anything from being tossed, Smith replied, "Yeah, don't throw elbows.") But afterward? It became clear that the blow had broken the rhythm of the streaky guard and his team. Suddenly Smith plunged into a heinous slump, averaging 13.5 points at a horrid 29.1 percent clip; the Knicks, gasping for offense, lost six of their next nine, falling in the second round to the Pacers. "I take the blame for this whole series," a contrite Smith said after New York fell into a 3-1 hole to Indiana. "I've been letting my coaches down."

Jason Terry
J.R. Smith's swinging elbow had a boomerang effect -- smashing Jason Terry's jaw, then the Knicks' playoff run.

As ejections are concerned, however, Smith has hardly been alone in frustrating his supervisors. Although the frequency of NBA evictions has declined over the past 20 years, the first two rounds of this season's postseason produced the highest playoff ejection rate in a decade, seven in the 67 games. Star center Dwight Howard was expelled two minutes into the third quarter of the Lakers' fourth and final game against the Spurs, making for a particularly unceremonious first-round exit and entry into unrestricted free agency. The same went for Clippers point guard Chris Paul, banished from the fourth quarter of LA's season-ending loss in Game 6 to Memphis. Exactly 32 seconds after Paul, Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph was also kicked out. And the week after all of that, no fewer than three Bulls bigs -- Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed -- were discharged from Chicago's second-round series against Miami.

But not all ejections are created equal. According to Rule 12, Section V of the 65-page NBA Official Rulebook, any of the following can trigger the boot: two technical fouls; one technical for unsportsmanlike conduct; two flagrant fouls (that is, two instances of "unnecessary" contact while fouling); or one flagrant-2 foul ("unnecessary and excessive" contact while fouling). Of the seven playoff ejections, for example, referees gave the boot to only three players -- Smith, Gibson (who got two successive technicals for arguing about Noah's ejection) and Mohammed (who got one unsportsmanlike technical for shoving LeBron James to the floor with two hands) -- for single transgressive episodes. The other four were cases of pairs of technicals assessed in separate incidents.

If I don't go No. 1, it wasn't meant to be. But I'm going to work as hard as I can, so if I'm not No. 1, it won't be my fault."

-- Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins
So what acts do NBA refs deem the worst of all? What should a player avoid to escape an ejection, beyond throwing 'bows? In order to determine where that line is drawn, The Mag reviewed video of all 65 ejections in the regular season and the playoffs through two rounds. Sixteen of them (24.6 percent) came as the result of a second technical that was unrelated to the player's first technical. None was derived from two flagrants. And the remaining 49 (75.4 percent) consisted of 19 flagrant-2's, 17 cases in which players received two quick technicals in the same interaction and 13 unsportsmanlike technicals.

Among the 49 independently ejectable instances, noticeable patterns emerged:

Sixteen ejections (32.7 percent) were sparked by extended feuding with refs -- what the rulebook classifies in part as "cursing or blaspheming an official." By contrast, all of two players -- Thunder center Kendrick Perkins and Randolph -- were kicked out for heavily cursing at each other. (In November, the two were so intense in their profanity that Randolph could be heard yelling "...beat your ass!" on the TV broadcast.)

Sixteen other ejections (32.7 percent) resulted from contact with a head or neck. Only three ejections involved hard pushes from defenders; another stemmed from a stomach punch (from Pistons guard Will Bynum, who was fighting through a screen from Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough). And 11 ejections (22.4 percent) stemmed from the heated shoving of another player after the whistle.

Zach Randolph
In the Grizzlies' first-round series with the Clips, Zach Randolph hit Blake Griffin, the deck, then later the showers.

To the ejectee, of course, every exit is unique. "You definitely don't forget them," says Clippers center Ryan Hollins, who's been ejected five times in 405 career games. "I could tell you, verbatim, what's happened in each case." The big man stresses that he doesn't want a rep with officials. "It's like the DMV or your insurance company," he says. "On a hard play, one guy would be more likely to get the benefit of the doubt because of his record." But he also can't help but observe one positive, albeit unintended, effect of the boot.

"It might be human nature -- humans love violence and controversy, and they live and die for their team -- but the best reactions are from the crowd," Hollins says. "I could've scored all these points, but if I get into an altercation? They love it."

Come springtime, though? An ejection's stakes elevate along with the stage. Amid the frothing, physical intensity of the postseason, championship hopefuls confront a painful double bind: players hitting hardest at the very moment when fouls -- and bodies -- become most precious. In 15 of the past 20 years, in fact, the playoffs have produced a higher ejection rate than the regular season.

Which is why a 5'9" Knicks coach, Jeff Van Gundy, once clung to the leg of Heat center Alonzo Mourning in a futile attempt to quell a brawl in 1998. Or why James, the most relentlessly besieged man in the NBA, continues to distinguish himself by not having been ejected once in nearly 900 career regular-season and playoff games -- a level of self-control that the three runners-up in the MVP voting this year cannot claim.

It is in that environment, as Smith learned, that a crowd's love can so quickly turn to hate.

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