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The Role of the Enforcer in David Stern’s “G” Rated NBA Playoffs

The preliminaries have ended and now the NBA moves to the meat of its schedule, the NBA playoffs, where hoopologists will observe a rise in intensity that will trigger an increase in physical confrontations.  It’s only natural when two groups of human beings desperately want the same thing that disputes will occur. The long history of humankind suggests that we are far more confrontational than we are passive.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has attempted to remove the physical play from a game, which has been described with racially-charged words such as “thuggish” and “hoodlum.” Stern’s directives were aimed to make the game more palatable and attractive to corporate sponsors. The bottom line: Coca-Cola Company is a more lucrative corporate sponsor than EZ-Wider.

Stern has sought to eliminate hard fouls, institute a virtual zero tolerance policy to players verbally abusing referees, a technical foul limit that leads to a player suspension, and rules changes that have strived to reduce physical contact. Stern has done his best to sanitize the NBA, allowing corporations to connect with those eager Americans that purchase cell phones, drink carbonated beverages and drive Korean-made automobiles.

With the NBA playoffs underway, we will see the emergence of physical play that has mostly remained dormant during the regular season. Physical, in-your-grill-defense has always been a staple of professional basketball, and this year’s playoffs will be no different.

At the end of the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated that hard, physical play and a sharp mental focus could beat the Miami Heat. In Cleveland’s 102-90 regular season win, on March 29th , the Cavs overcame the visiting Heat with physical play inflicted by big men Ryan Hollins and J.J. Hickson as both players laid wood to The King, and Hollins made sure that Dwyane Wade did not feel left out with a well-placed thump as D Wade drove down the lane. To this viewer, the Heat appeared indignant and a tad shocked at the poor behavior offered by their less than accommodating hosts. (This was the same game where Cavs’ officials did not allow The King’s entourage to park underneath the Q.)

The only Heat player that appropriately responded to Cleveland’s intense physical play was the veteran Juwan Howard. Howard made sure to inform Ryan Hollins, with a body block, that LeBron and D Wade were off limits, but Hollins was less than interested in listening to Howard’s sage counsel. (Ryan Hollins and the Pistons’ Charlie Villanueva were the two combatants at the latest mayhem at The Palace. Villanueva attempted to sprint across the court and confront Hollins, but he was held back by his Detroit teammates.)

On the last weekend of the regular season, broadcast to David Stern’s nationwide viewing audience on ABC, the Heat dismissed the revamped Boston Celtics, 100-77. The Heat had entered the game 0-3 versus the Celtics. The Heat outhustled and outworked the Celtics for four quarters, but the game was either highlighted or marred (Depends on what type of basketball you prefer.), by Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal delivering a Zdeno Chara shoulder check to a speeding LeBron James attempting to deliver a highlight reel dunk. Two opposing forces met, neither man went to the canvas, LeBron chucked the ball at Jermaine O’Neal, D Wade and Paul Pierce exchanged shoves and their opinions of Kanye West’s new album, and all four players were assessed technical fouls with O’Neal also receiving a flagrant foul.

There is a kernel of thought, which seems to exist in the NBA, suggesting the Heat can be punk’d. Neither LeBron nor D Wade likes to get hit, and will a physical team be able to intimidate a Heat squad that lacks a physical presence or enforcer? Juwan Howard has moved into that role with the Heat, but Howard has never been known as the next Charles Oakley.

New Jack City

For those that argue that basketball is a finesse game, and that physical play has no place in the game, please take a look at the success of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. The members of this trio have used their strength to intimidate and excel.

The enforcer used to have a more prominent place in the game, where each team had at least one player or two who would adopt the role of hardwood sheriff. The 1980s may have elevated the role of the enforcer to its greatest heights.

Pat Riley’s New York Knicks had Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks and Anthony Mason, complemented with a supporting cast ready to throw ‘bows that intimidated, horrified and made the NBA into a full-contact sport. Riles’ Knicks took to a whole new level what Detroit’s Bad Boys had started a few years earlier.

Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys were led into mortal combat by Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis “The Worm” Rodman. If a team wanted to beat the Pistons, it was going to leave the arena knowing it had been in a fight.The list of fines assessed to the Bad Boys for fighting is truly unbelievable. In November of 1991, Isiah was fined $3,000 for fighting Kevin Willis. Kevin Willis is nearly double the size of Thomas. Is it any wonder that Utah Jazz muscleman Karl “The Mailman” Malone opened up Zeke’s forehead with a vicious Tony Atlas flying elbow that left Detroit’s floor general with 40 stitches above his left eye?

Of course, when it comes to playoff-punking, everyone immediately points to Boston’s Kevin McHale inflicting a Jack Tatum hit on the Lakers’ long-haired and bespectacled Kurt Rambis in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Lakers’ Showtime offense was cruising up and down the Forum’s floor when McHale ended the Lakers high-speed show, with a clothesline to a sprinting Rambis, who was poised to attack the rim for two points. After Rambis gathered his wits, he made a move to come after McHale, but he fell back into the photographers perched on the baseline. When Rambis made his awkward move, McHale wanted no part of Rambis or a fight.  Larry Bird reached down, offered his hand to Rambis, and helped him get to his feet while McHale was far from the epicenter of the ensuing scuffle. In NBA history, McHale will be viewed as a hard man that was inflicting playoff justice to a Lakers team that was breaking the NBA fast break speed limit, but that simply does a disservice to the truth.

Was McHale’s clothesline really the reason the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals? As a fan, that single moment is easy to pinpoint, but perhaps the Celtics were simply the more talented team.

Punk’d in 2011

With absolute certainty, physical play will manifest itself in the 2011 NBA playoffs.

Will it rival the hand-to-hand combat that developed between Phoenix’s Raja Bell and Los Angeles’s Kobe Bryant in Game 5 of their 2006 playoff series?

Will we see another explosive elbow from Dwight Howard recreate the knockout he inflicted on the Celtics’ Big Baby Davis in the 2010 playoffs? NBA referees seem to allow Dwight Howard to play with an added physical dimension in the playoffs.

The Bulls franchise player, Derrick Rose, will be physically tested in the playoffs. Will Rose be able to handle the physical pounding? And what player on the Bulls will step up to be his protector?

If the Celtics and Lakers are able to renew their storied rivalry, in the NBA Finals, NBA observers know that Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett will attempt to physically intimidate his Lakers counterpart, Pau Gasol. In Garnett’s mental scouting report, there has to be a passage that insists physical play will intimidate European big men. Former Boston big man Rasheed Wallace used the same scouting report to defend against Gasol. And Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys used that same premise against the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen.

Physical play will affect the outcome of games, and may influence the course of a playoff series, which was illustrated by former San Antonio Spur Robert Horry’s Eddie Shore/old time hockey body check to Phoenix’s Steve Nash in Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals Horry’s hit occurred with 18 seconds remaining in the game, which the Suns went on to win 104-98. Horry received a two-game suspension for his hooliganism, but Phoenix’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw received one-game suspensions for leaving the Phoenix bench. Both Diaw and Stoudemire were used by former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni to guard future Spurs Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. The Suns never recovered from the suspensions, and proceeded to lose the series.

A successful playoff run requires skill, grit, a willingness to endure physical play, a willingness to physically punish your opponent and a tremendous amount of luck. All of these elements will be showcased in the 2011 playoffs, but don’t bet your Bad Boys poster that a David Stern suspension won’t influence a team’s hopes for a title run. The game has been sanitized, but the same emotions run through these players’ veins as they did in the 1980s. David Stern needs to protect his most precious assets, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but one can bet that a McNasty or McFilthy elbow will attempt to make each of David Stern’s stars a permanent fixture on the training table.

Dave Sheridan can contacted via e-mail @ dsheridan@chasing23.com.

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