The tense scene began as James and Stewart jockeyed for rebounding position on a free throw with Detroit leading 78-66 early in the third quarter. Stewart leaned on James with his right arm as he boxed out, prompting James to swing his left arm in an attempt to free himself from the contact. James’s swing caught Stewart directly in the face, sending the 20-year-old big man staggering to his knees and causing blood to stream down his face.
The two players briefly shoved each other and were quickly separated by their teammates and the officials, but an increasingly incensed Stewart twice tried to reengage with James, breaking free from a pack of coaches who attempted to hold him back.
At one point, he plowed through four people before teammate Cade Cunningham could grab him by the waist and redirect him toward Detroit’s bench. When he finally left the court, Stewart sprinted into the tunnel, leading security staffers and local police to guard the entrance near the Lakers’ bench in case he tried to return to the floor.
James was issued a Flagrant Foul 2, which applies to contact that is deemed “unnecessary and excessive” and triggers an automatic ejection. This incident marked just the second time that James has been ejected and the first time he has been suspended during his 19-year career. The league office deemed that James “recklessly hit” Stewart and that his action “initiated an on-court altercation.” The four-time MVP will serve his suspension when the Lakers visit the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.
Stewart was issued a personal foul for his initial shove of James and a pair of technical fouls for unsportsmanlike actions during the altercation, which required his ejection. The league office deemed Stewart “escalated an on-court altercation by repeatedly and aggressively pursuing [James] in an unsportsmanlike manner.”
The second-year center will serve his suspension during the Pistons’ games against the Miami Heat in Detroit on Tuesday and at the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. Both James and Stewart are in line to be available when the Lakers host the Pistons on Sunday.
Although James did not address the media after Sunday’s game, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said the initial blow was “unfortunate” and unintentional.
“Everyone in the league knows that [James] isn’t a dirty guy,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said after Sunday’s game. “As soon as he did it, he looked back and told him: ‘My bad. I didn’t try to do it.’ I don’t know what [Stewart] was trying to do. Nobody on our team, one through 15, was having it. We’re going to protect our brother. … [The reaction] was uncalled-for. You’ve got a cut above your eye, accidental; it wasn’t on purpose. We weren’t going to allow him to keep charging our brother like that.”
The Lakers improved to 9-9 and snapped a three-game losing streak by coming back to beat the Pistons after James’s ejection. Their frustration has been evident at times early this season; James has missed significant time with injuries, and Davis and teammate Dwight Howard engaged in a shoving match on the bench during a timeout.
“To me, [the altercation is] one of those things that can change the momentum of your season,” Vogel said Sunday.