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OKLAHOMA CITY — The NBA finally delivered its verdict late Monday on Draymond Green’s kick to Steven Adams, and the ruling, in typical Adam Silver style, leans toward pragmatic rather than punitive.
Green will not be suspended for Game 4 between the Warriors and Thunder in Oklahoma City on Tuesday after he kicked Adams below the belt during the second quarter of a Game 3 loss on Sunday. Instead, Green’s foul was upgraded from a Flagrant Foul 1 (given to contact that’s deemed “unnecessary”) to a Flagrant Foul 2 (which applies to “unnecessary and excessive” contact) and the All-Star forward was hit with a $25,000 fine.
“After a thorough investigation that included review of all available video angles and interviews with the players involved and the officials working the game, we have determined that Green’s foul was unnecessary and excessive and warranted the upgrade and fine,” NBA Executive VP of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe said in a statement. “During a game, players—at times—flail their legs in an attempt to draw a foul, but Green’s actions in this case warranted an additional penalty.”
VanDeWeghe’s ruling differed from a one-game suspension given on Sunday to Cavaliers guard Dahntay Jones for striking Raptors center Bismack Biyombo below the belt. That’s understandable: Jones swung a fist rather than flailing his leg, he isn’t a central player in the East finals, and his suspension is a footnote wholly lacking in series-deciding implications. The NBA should have, and apparently did, treat the two situations on a case-by-case basis, rather than rushing to a blanket ruling.
There was no way to completely bridge the gap between the two options—suspension or no suspension—but the league nevertheless appeared to seek a compromise that made the most sense to the greater good.
By opting not to suspend, the NBA avoided overshadowing a competitive series with its own bureaucratic rulings, as it famously did by suspending multiple Suns players for leaving the bench during a 2007 second-round series against the Spurs. The league also ensured that the Warriors, owners of the best regular-season record in league history, will be able to enter the most important game of their season at full strength. The defending champions will decide their own fate; if they go down 3–1 against a resolute Thunder team, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
Golden State clearly wins too. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, MVP Stephen Curry and Green all repeatedly asserted that Green’s kick was unintentional. Watching a 73-win season go up in smoke due to an unfortunate flailing and a heavy-handed ruling would have been truly lamentable. Without Green, Kerr would have been forced to split up his power forward minutes among the likes of Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and Anderson Varejao—a terrifying prospect indeed.
Green, one of the league’s most polarizing players, is surely breathing a sigh of relief. The only thing worse than a career-worst -43 plus/minus in Game 3 would have been a Game 4 suspension, especially for a player who is so eager to assume leadership responsibilities. Green had an unbelievable season—one worthy of All-NBA and All-Defensive team selections—and it would have been a shame if an absence over a disputed play would have undercut that body of work. This kick might still prove to be the turning point in this series, as it clearly changed the direction of Game 3, but at least Green will have a chance to participate in the series’ next chapter.
The league’s fans are also winners. The Western Conference finals has seen spectacular stretches from Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, among others. Keeping the focus on the superstars who are on the court, rather than the one who could have been off the court, is in the best interests of the viewing public (not to mention TNT, the league’s television partner).
Although the Thunder don’t get the benefit of facing the Green-less Warriors, it’s hard to call them “losers” from this ordeal. On the contrary, Oklahoma City conducted itself extremely well throughout the incident, much like it did during multiple controversies over late-game officiating during its second-round series with San Antonio.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan did his best to stand up for his players without giving the Warriors any bulletin board material, Westbrook called out Green for his below-the-belt blows in an appropriate and honest fashion, and Adams played through the pain before smiling through the pain during his postgame interviews.
What’s more, he delivered the perfect sentiment during Oklahoma City’s practice on Monday.
“Regardless, I think we can beat them with or without [Green],” Adams said.
The NBA also offered the Thunder some consolation prizes in the upgraded foul and the fine. With Green’s foul upgraded to a Flagrant 2, he now has three flagrant points during the playoffs. If Green commits a Flagrant Foul 1 at any point during this series, he will be subjected to an automatic one-game suspension. If he commits a Flagrant Foul 2 at any point in this series, he will be hit with an automatic two-game suspension. Given the physical and intensely competitive nature of this series, Green will need to be very, very careful.
As for the fine, it matches the amount that Thunder forward Serge Ibaka was docked in 2013 when he struck Clippers forward Blake Griffin below the belt. That part evens out.
Oklahoma City can also take solace in the fact that Green’s presence on the court will make an already electric Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd go even crazier during Game 4. If the building’s booing and “Kick Him Out!” chants toward Green during Game 3 are any indication, the Thunder’s homecourt advantage will be palpable from before player introductions to the final buzzer on Tuesday.
There are only two real groups of losers from this ruling: the game officials and those observers who firmly believe that Green’s kick was intentional and that he lied about it.
The officiating crew shouldn’t be all that upset with the ruling. Reasonable people can disagree over whether Green’s act was “excessive” given his questionable intent and his history of flailing his legs in traffic. While the officials ultimately decided to allow Green to continue playing in Game 3, given the high stakes in that moment, they couldn’t have been shocked that an off-site review aided by an investigation of the incident and time to reflect reached a stronger decision.
As for those who are sure Green is getting away with one, there’s no other message except, Tough luck. His reward for avoiding sanction for this flagrant kick will be one of the most pressure-packed games of his career, an angry and loud crowd of 18,000-plus people going after him all night, and the intense scrutiny of officials who will surely be waiting for him to take things too far. Not to mention, a talented and imposing Thunder frontline that has owned two of the three games in this series to date. That’s no walk in the park.
While Silver, VanDeWeghe and company certainly could have been harsher with this ruling, they landed at a reasonable place that sets up a fascinating Game 4. Instead of fueling a distraction, they found a solution that put basketball first.