By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
PHOENIX, May 15 -- The NBA on Tuesday suspended San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry for two games and Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns one game each for their actions in the final minute of the Suns' 104-98 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. All three players will be out for Wednesday's Game 5 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, but the Suns suffered a more costly blow in losing Stoudemire, an all-NBA first-team center and the team's leading scorer in the series.
The penalties could squelch much of the momentum the Suns had built in tying the best-of-seven series at 2-2 with a dramatic comeback victory, as they closed out the game with 16-3 run. "I feel like I've been punched in the gut," Suns managing partner Robert Sarver said after the ruling was announced. "I feel we've been unjustly penalized for the fact that we just played a good hard game."
Obviously ignoring the huge bandage on Steve Nash's nose and puffiness below Manu Ginobili's left eye, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan laughed Saturday night at the suggestion that the Western Conference semifinals between Phoenix and San Antonio was a physical series. The intensity ratcheted up several notches with 18 seconds left in Game 4 and the Suns leading by three. Nash was dribbling up the floor when Horry led with his left elbow and sent Nash flying on his back. Horry received an automatic ejection, picking up a flagrant foul penalty two. Diaw quickly rushed to the floor and Stoudemire followed, removing a towel from his shoulder, and darted up the court before being restrained by Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni.
"This is a very unfortunate circumstance," NBA Executive Vice President Stu Jackson said during a conference call. "No one here at the league office wants to suspend players any game, much less a pivotal game in the second round of a playoff series. But the rule, however, is the rule, and we intend to apply it consistently."
The NBA's Rule No. 12, Section VII, Item C states: "During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $35,000. The suspensions will commence prior to the start of their next game."
Stoudemire is leading the Suns in the playoffs with 23.9 points and 12.1 rebounds, and leaves a huge void in the middle. Diaw is averaging 7.2 points in the postseason, but he started for Stoudemire last season when Stoudemire missed all but three games because of two knee surgeries.
Immediately after the game, Stoudemire said that he was merely trying to check into the game, an explanation that made even Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni laugh. On Tuesday, Stoudemire held to that claim, but admitted that he couldn't sleep for fear of the ramifications of his actions.
"I was thinking 'how can this change the series?' " Stoudemire said after practice, which concluded about three hours before the suspensions were announced. "A lot of people look at this series as the championship series and when you see your star player goes down that hard, it's tough to hold your composure and don't do anything about it. But there's rules and teams have to abide by it."
Horry, one of the Spurs' top reserves, will also miss Game 6 and was averaging just 6.4 points in the playoffs. Asked about the fairness of the suspensions given the disparity in what each side loses, Jackson said, "It's not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness, and this is the right decision at this point in time." Jackson added Diaw and Stoudemire were "20 to 25 feet" from their seats.
When told of Jackson's remarks, Sarver just shook his head. "We're 18 seconds away; the guys played so well . . . and they were so gritty and they were so tough and they beat the Spurs at their own game," Sarver said. "They won the type of game we wouldn't have won two years ago. It was big step forward for the team and the organization. And, for Robert Horry to be rewarded like that . . . to me, it's unbelievable. I can't see the justice in it."
Prior to the suspensions, the Suns tried a counteroffensive when they returned from San Antonio by alerting league officials that Duncan and Bruce Bowen left the bench during the second quarter of the game. Three minutes into the second period, Francisco Elson hung on the rim after a dunk and Suns reserve James Jones stood under him, causing Elson to fall.
Duncan rushed from his seat and walked to the three-point line before Bowen pulled back Duncan.
Sarver said the league informed him that neither Duncan nor Bowen were suspended in that instance because there was no altercation between Elson and Jones. "It's a gray area because there is no definition in the league rules what an altercation is, and it's up to their judgment," Sarver said.
Sarver said he will push to have the rule changed next season. "The whole guys-on-the-court thing, there wasn't a fight," Nash said after the game. "It wasn't like guys left the bench to enter the fight. So I don't see what, in the big picture, the deal is."
No Spurs players were made available on Tuesday, but before departing on the team flight for Phoenix from San Antonio, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said he didn't think Horry's foul warranted a flagrant foul, much less a suspension. "It was just an end of game foul and Steve fell down," Popovich told reporters in San Antonio. "I didn't think it was such a big deal."