Message to the Mavs: Quit Whining and Play
The conscience of the Dallas Mavericks used his time behind the microphone this afternoon to whimper about poor, little Jerry Stackhouse getting docked a game for running into a human cement mixer. The pitch in Avery Johnson's nasally drawl went higher: "Because the league comes down with a certain ruling, what are we supposed to do as coaches? Say amen?"
Shaq, not Stack, is the real perpetrator in this series, he said. Johnson kept going, unable to stop himself: "So now because I'm supposed to be a religious man, I'm supposed to come in here today and have a prayer meeting."
He moved his team from Miami to Fort Lauderdale the other day to eliminate the devilish temptations of South Beach. He is also making his millionaire ballplayers room together for the first time since many were in college. Full-grown adults who do not have to work until 9 p.m. tonight are not allowed to leave the hotel grounds.
In less than a week, the man has gone from this hilarious, Energizer Bunny character to Gunnery Sgt. Foley riding Ensign Mayo in "An Officer and a Gentleman." He hasn't asked Dirk Nowitzki to spit-shine his sneakers yet, but he's making him room with Darrell Armstrong.
Worse, his response to the league's decision to suspend Stackhouse for Game 5 makes conspiratorial fans everywhere think David Stern and his henchmen have it out for Mark Cuban and his Mavericks.
No other league has to deal with cloak-and-dagger theories the way the NBA has for the past 20 years. You never hear how Paul Tagliabue wanted Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl and that's why New England's corners are allowed to bump receivers beyond five yards. Or how Bud Selig wanted the Yankees and Red Sox to meet for the American League pennant, and that's why Selig prevented Baltimore and Toronto from swapping sluggers in December.
But the NBA hears this every postseason, a continued drumbeat from fans, players, coaches and owners who believe the league wants stars such as Shaq, Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley to shine bright and long.
Just because Dallas is in meltdown mode, Johnson and his team shouldn't make this out to be, "We're the persecuted team from the Western Conference that gets no respect." Or the outdated standby: "We know the league and ABC want a Game 7; that's what these calls against us are about."
Come on, Dallas, you're better than that.
It's insulting to those who want to watch and concentrate on competitive basketball. It's disrespectful to Stu Jackson, the NBA's dean of discipline, who has been very consistent in meting out fines and suspensions this postseason.
Stackhouse did not make a play on the ball against O'Neal on Thursday night in Game 4; he came up high with a forearm that caught Shaq in the face and sent him hard to the floor.
The debate keeps percolating leading up to Sunday night about the legitimacy of Stackhouse getting suspended a game for that flagrant foul on O'Neal in Game 4. No, it was not Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in 1984, which remains the measuring stick for a take-a-guy-out foul in the Finals. The argument against suspending Stackhouse will hinge on the premise that a game of this magnitude should be decided on the court.
The let-'em-play crowd is correct; this is about the playoffs, the very time of year the NBA does not want thuggish behavior mucking up its new, high-octane game. The casual fan is paying attention to a product he became disinterested in 12 years ago, the moment he saw Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley mug Hakeem Olajuwon instead of guarding him. Whatever the intent of Stackhouse's flagrant foul -- and I think he wanted to put some hurt on a man that caused him pain earlier in the series -- the Mavericks should know that cleaning up the league is a fairness decision and, indirectly, an economic decision.
Stackhouse's foul wasn't James Posey throwing a crack-back block on Kirk Hinrich in the open floor during the Heat's first-round series against Chicago, for which Posey got a game. It wasn't Raja Bell losing a game for taking down Kobe Bryant in the first round, because Bell was fed up with taking Kobe's elbows to his chops and he was determined to get some payback. It certainly wasn't the Clippers' Chris Kamen appearing to have his genital area grabbed by Denver's Reggie Evans in the first round, for which Evans was not suspended. But it was still malicious enough to warrant a game.
Stackhouse also has a past, having taken out Phoenix's Joe Johnson a year ago in the playoffs, a very hard foul that did not draw a suspension. You better believe it was filed away by a league that takes your past into account. Ask Ron Artest. His margin of error for catching an opponent with a 'bow in the throat is much slimmer than Wade's.
For Johnson to go off on the league's alleged inconsistency smacks of hypocrisy. This new, no-contact NBA, in which every hand check is whistled, is the reason why a lithe, quick and skilled team such as Dallas got to the Finals. Players such as San Antonio's Bruce Bowen cannot play as aggressively on the perimeter as they once did, which enables offensive-minded guards and forwards to get the space they need to release jump shots they never could get off before -- players such as the Mavericks' Jason Terry, Josh Howard and Dirk Nowitzki. You can't have it both ways.
Johnson needs to give up the Sgt. Foley act and tell his team to play. Body-up Wade. Get in the Miami guard's grill before he completely demoralizes your team. Make a big shot. Retake control of the series.
For goodness sake, quit whining. It makes Johnson and his team look more desperate than determined.