Quick poll: What was your reaction to watching the Knicks-Nuggets fight Saturday night?
My reaction was C (the answer to D being “for work” — what’s your excuse?). I know I should be shocked and outraged, but did anybody else think the sight of Nate Robinson furiously trying to pick a fight with about three guys who each had a foot and several dozen pounds on him was kind of… well… funny?
The melee was embarrassing, yes, and deeply, deeply stupid, but it was also the most entertaining thing to happen to the Knicks in weeks. Sportscenter can bring in dozens of talking heads to declaim against the shameful violence of today’s NBA, but until they stop doing Top 10 segments on the NBA’s best brawls and features on notable fights, I’m not buying it.
Which is not to say that the penalties handed out by David Stern aren’t called for: $500,000 fines for both teams (though I imagine James Dolan finds that kind of money in his sofa cushions every week); a whopping 15-game suspension for Carmelo Anthony, 10 for Robinson and J.R. Smith, six for Mardy Collins, four for Jared Jeffries. [Ed. — The preceding sentence was corrected on 12.20.06] There are several points at which Saturday night’s events could have gotten scary very fast: if Collin’s awful flagrant foul had seriously injured J.R. Smith; if Smith and Robinson had hurt spectators during their tumble into the stands; if Jeffries hadn’t been forcibly restrained from ripping out Anthony’s spine, Mortal Kombat-style. None of that happened, and no one was hurt, but if you’re the commissioner, you have to make sure players think twice before throwing another punch. The fact is, though, that Stern’s suspensions will hurt Denver, a team fighting for first place in a competitive division, far more than it will hurt the Knicks — who were losing whether Jared Jeffries was in there or not, let alone Mardy Collins, and will only see the playoffs if the New Jersey Nets keep figuring out new and exciting ways to play below their level.
The one glaring omission in Stern’s ruling is Isiah Thomas‘s role in all this; the coach comes out of this fiasco looking absolutely terrible. Er, terrible-er. More terrible. Nuggets coach George Karl put his stars in an uncomfortable spot by leaving them in the game, violating basketball’s (somewhat silly) code of sportsmanship, but Thomas tops him handily. First there’s his warning to Carmelo Anthony, just before the foul, to stay out of the paint — and by the way, the fact that Thomas would do this within scant feet of hundreds of witnesses and cameras does nothing to raise my opinion of his judgment. Then there’s his creepy post-brawl chuckling as he complained that the Nuggets’ big names were humiliating the Knicks on their home court. If Thomas didn’t order Mardy Collins to foul J. R. Smith, he certainly set the stage for it, and that’s a lousy position to put a rookie in.
The Knicks are many things this year — inconsistent, turnover-prone, often sloppy, flat-out inept on defense — but they’re not thugs, a word I read uncomfortably often on Sunday mornings. I’ve spent only a couple of weeks covering the team this year, but it doesn’t take very long to see that this is hardly a violent or aggressive group of guys. What they are is young, frustrated by the incessant ugly home losses, and looking for guidance to a coach and former Hall of Fame player whose favorite words and phrases this season (after “they’re just a better team than we are right now”) have been “show some fight,” “manliness,” “be a man,” and “man up.”
With the exceptions of Collins, Robinson, and — after his teammate was punched in the face — Jeffries, the Knicks tried to keep the peace and, for the most part, stayed on their bench. Here’s an unusual statement: Stephon Marbury showed good judgment. Read it again and savor it; you won’t see its like again for many moons. As for Robinson, who doused the fire with gasoline, what he showed Saturday was the dark side of his ability to ignore his size and compete fearlessly with the big guys — that urge to prove he can cut it, which leads to both his nifty, energizing plays and his unproductive showboating.
Thomas said in his post-game conference, “We had surrendered. And those guys shouldn’t have been in the game at that time. They were sticking it to us pretty good. They were having their way with us pretty good. I think J.R. Smith had just made one dunk where he reverses it and spins in the air. I thought that Mardy didn’t want to have our home crowd see that again and he fouled him.”
Look, there must be something we’re missing here. Did defense break Isiah’s heart by leaving him for another man? Perhaps it abused him when he was a small child, or stole his lunch money every day in fifth grade. I don’t know. But there must be some explanation for the fact that Thomas would rather spark a fight than teach his team to protect the basket, which, as you may be aware, is another, more popular way of preventing humiliating losses.