In many ways, John Wall really had no choice. In this league, reputations are formed quickly, and once they are established, they stick. So when Miami Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was casually peppering Wall’s face with errant elbows, he responded the only way he knew how -- by defending himself.
He initially tried to show some restraint. Wall said he was shaken by the first elbow, which hit him square in the face, but he responded by going harder after the ball. But when Ilgauskas swung his arm around to hit him again with the left, he snapped. Wall wasn’t merely trying to protect his face, but also his reputation -- since he doesn’t want to be seen as someone who will back down. “Second one, I got hit and I reacted,” Wall said.
Wall threw a punch at Ilgauskas’s midsection, which led to an automatic ejection, and now the Wizards will have to wait and see if their best player will be available for the next game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A suspension is likely, considering precedent within the NBA league office, but as he got ready to leave the locker room after the Wizards’ 123-107 loss to the Heat, Wall tried to not to ponder his future.
“I can’t worry that about that right now, just try to keep practicing and try to get ready for the next game and see what decision the league makes,” said Wall, who had two points and five assists before getting tossed with 8 minutes, 46 seconds left in the second quarter. “I’m disappointed with how I reacted to it. I let my teammates down. I let my organization down.”
The incident nearly got out of hand when JaVale McGee stepped in break up Wall and Ilgauskas, who leaned in and grabbed Wall’s arms after the punch. But McGee was quickly separated from them, when Juwan Howard, the unlikely goon of the Heat, rushed in to shove McGee with both hands.
“Guy hit him in the face and obviously, he wasn’t having it. I went over there to break it up and Juwan wanted to blindside push me or whatever,” said McGee, who squared up like he was ready to rumble with Howard before Coach Flip Saunders stepped in to push him away.
Saunders was right in the middle, cursing at Howard. I told Saunders afterward that I thought he was going to wind up hanging on Howard’s leg the way former New York Knicks coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy latched onto Alonzo Mourning when Mourning fought/whiffed at/slapped with Larry Johnson and later got tangled with Charles Oakley during the first round of the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. “I wouldn’t go for the leg. I’ve seen that on TV before,” Saunders said with a laugh.
Saunders said he is hopeful that Wall won’t receive more punishment from the league. “One, he took a shot, an elbow to the head. From what the referees told me, I don’t know if there will be further penalties. What happens on any flagrant twos, any situation, they always evaluate everything. From what the referees said, I don’t think it warrants it because it was just elbows that were thrown, not punches. I’m assuming that it’ll be okay.
Howard and Ilgauskas were both ejected, with Ilgaukas offering fans a double-bird salute on his way to the locker room. It was the second time this season that Howard nearly made a situation worse than it had to be. When the teams met in Miami on Nov. 29, Hilton Armstrong was ejected for shoving Heat center Joel Anthony while he attempted a dunk. Armstrong leaned down to help up Anthony, but as he extended his hand, Howard pushed him and Armstrong dove into the floor. Howard’s anger toward to Wizards is hard to grasp, since it was the organization that made him abundantly wealthy by giving him a $105 million contract back in 1996.
“I don’t know,” McGee said, when asked what Howard had against the Wizards. “I guess he wants to be tough guy.”
Wall wasn’t trying to be tough guy. But he also knows that he has to handle the situation differently. Wall said he was pleased that McGee was there to defend him.
“That’s good that we’re protecting each other, but if we’re going to do stuff like that, we’ve got to be better and just get a technical or try to get nothing, try not to get ejected out of the game,” Wall said. “It was tough. My teammates had to do without me. But they stepped up big, fought hard and came up short.”