The Washington Post

Tempers rise, pettiness rules during these NBA playoffs

- Candace Buckner

We’ve reached that critical point in the NBA playoffs when individual­s start feeling the pressure to gain any inch of competitiv­e advantage, lest they face the “win or go home” ultimatum (as though returning to a multimilli­on-dollar pad for a nice, long summer vacation is such a terrible thing).

But because it’s the postseason when NBA stars write their legend — and because a championsh­ip cements so many legacies — the desire to win becomes almost unbearable. That’s why so many key figures have suddenly turned petty.

This is not to say NBA players are not typically petty. They are. They study in faraway convents to become wizards in the dark magic of pettiness. They plant the seeds of their trivial slights, watering and nurturing them until their babies become a fullbloome­d garden of petty. Instead of the image of Jerry West dribbling, a more accurate logo for today’s NBA would be a silhouette of a grown man sipping tea. And that’s why we can’t get enough of this game.

Petty is fun. It makes those of us on the East Coast stay up and tune in for a 10 p.m. tip-off on a Monday just to see what superfluou­s acts of petty will emerge from the Golden State Warriors-memphis Grizzlies matchup. That series, and just about every playoff game in this conference semifinal round, has

provided plenty for our ravenous appetite for all things petty.

But maybe there’s more at stake in these playoffs, because more clenched-jawed players and coaches appear to be feeling the squeeze than ever before and quarrels keep blossoming out of nowhere. This is no longer a cute garden of petty, with free admission on Sunday, but rather weeds suffocatin­g and overtaking the grounds where entertaini­ng basketball once was played.

The petty feuds have reached the point of farce. It starts with the main feature: the Warriors vs. the Grizzlies vs. “the code.”

In Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr was understand­ably hot after Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks clubbed his guy, Gary Payton II, in an ill-advised attempt to stop a layup. Payton landed hard, and the fall fractured his elbow. For this flagrant act, Brooks received an immediate ejection. Kerr cursed him off the court, but he didn’t stop there.

Kerr ripped Brooks for breaking “the code,” which like the volumes of baseball rules is unwritten but clearly states, somewhere, thou shalt never knock an opponent upside his head and break his elbow. The league walloped Brooks back, hitting him with a one-game suspension — which, regardless of how unjust that seemed in light of Payton being sidelined for at least three weeks, should have been the end of that messy moment.

But, oh no. The Grizzlies are petty — particular­ly their starring savant (and every NBA fan’s most searched highlight machine), Ja Morant. Just a month ago, before things got tight, Morant said he and his Memphis buddies “ain’t ducking no smoke.” For the uninitiate­d, just know that means they’re tough guys who aren’t afraid of anyone.

The series shifted to San Francisco for Game 3, and as the Warriors were smoking Memphis, Morant fell into a trap between two defenders. Warriors guard Jordan Poole made an apparent attempt to go for the ball but, in the mad scramble, grabbed Morant’s right knee instead. Morant left the floor with soreness in that knee, and

though he had come up limping after an earlier play before the grab, he used Kerr’s words against his own player by tweeting, and later deleting, that Poole “broke the code.”

This registered as a mere 5.0 on the petty scale, simply because Morant and the Grizzlies, those smoke catchers, seemed all too quick to exact verbal vengeance against Kerr for disparagin­g Brooks. But that’s the beauty of pettiness: the more absurd, the better — just like Luka Doncic vs. every referee who has the misfortune of officiatin­g a Dallas Mavericks game in these playoffs.

Doncic has never committed a foul in his NBA career. Just ask him. But when a whistle mistakenly blows against him, he’ll smile an insincere smile or — here’s a new one — he’ll thrust

both hands to the sky and make the internatio­nal sign for money by rubbing his thumbs against his fingers. During the Mavericks’ Game 3 contest against the Phoenix Suns, Doncic twice made the gesture as he walked back to his sideline after being called for a foul.

Maybe Doncic was trying to inform the home fans to tip the wait staff or remind team owner Mark Cuban about that

$207 million contract extension he’ll have to start paying next season. But because Doncic is an NBA all-star, his true intent probably was pettier — an insinuatio­n that the refs were on the Suns’ payroll. It should be noted that Dallas won Game 3 as well as Game 4 on Sunday. If the officials are indeed being paid on the side, Phoenix should demand a refund.

But not all drama lives in the realm of trashy fun. Following that Game 4 in Dallas, Suns guard Chris Paul declared his beef with rowdy fans.

“Wanna fine players for saying stuff to the fans but the fans can put they hands on our families,” Paul tweeted after the game.

Things took a strange turn when the Mavericks removed a fan seated behind the Suns’ bench. In various videos, a young male fan in a Doncic No. 77 shirt and a woman sheltering him can be seen being ushered away, and Paul has to be held back while telling the fan: “Aye! I’ ll see you later!” The Mavericks later said in a statement that two fans attempted to give “unwanted hugs” to members of Paul’s family and had been banned from American Airlines Center until 2023.

There have been several nasty moments between players and fans during these playoffs: Kyrie Irving vs. the TD Garden crowd; Draymond Green vs. a Memphis television weatherman. When Irving is called everything but his first name or Green receives criticism that crosses the line with possible racial overtones, we long for the days when a petty Kobe Bryant shuts up a heckler by holding up five fingers to signify how many rings he had won. That was fun; these recent encounters are just ugly.

But the pressure of these moments can combust in uncomforta­ble and unpredicta­ble ways. That’s why the safest prediction for the next few weeks remains this: a main dish of basketball with a heaping side of petty.

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 ?? JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Golden State fans held signs of support for injured guard Gary Payton II during Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday.
JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS Golden State fans held signs of support for injured guard Gary Payton II during Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday.

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