Clippers point guard protects the basketball as he makes contact with Spurs… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
It's the playoffs, prime time for the rough-'n'-ready NBA. Polish the brass knuckles. This is the real ultimate fighting.
There is a reason they label these playoffs by rounds. All they need are ring girls. How about calling them the Muhammad Ali conference semifinals, leading to the George Foreman finals?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 24, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
NBA playoffs: A column in the May 22 Sports section about physical play in the NBA playoffs misspelled the last name of retired Boston Celtics player Jim Loscutoff as Luscutoff.
We wonder what Dr. Naismith would think if he came back to look at his game. No more peach baskets, Doc, but lots of elbows and forearm shivers. These guys hang necks on clotheslines, not clothes.
Remember Jim Luscutoff? He's 82 now, living part time in Massachusetts and part time in Florida. He used to wreak havoc with anybody playing his Celtics. The baseline was his and intruders departed with bruises and warts. Jungle Jim played at 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds. Now, he'd be a lightweight, Manny Pacquiao in Vitali Klitschko's world.
Luscutoff's NBA era was not for the faint of heart. But today's game, with bigger stakes and bigger players, is really heavy on the testosterone. If you like finesse, watch dressage.
For the most part, the pro version of this alleged non-contact sport was always more about banging than beauty. Even the terms tell that now. They don't rebound, they pound the boards. They don't guard each other, they body up.
Luscutoff's era -- he played nine years in Boston, starting in 1955, and won seven titles -- was an extension of the postwar roughhouse times in the league. The NBA was moving beyond teams in Sheboygan and Rochester, and the game, although occasionally showcasing some basketball finesse with the likes of Bob Cousy, was thickening its skin.
Most teams had a Luscutoff. Heck, some of the toughest guys were in the backcourt. Bill Sharman was from that era and nobody dared mess with him.
Still, the impression was that the rough stuff was limited, controllable. You could officiate it.
Now, well....? Where have you gone, Mendy Rudolph? A nation turns it lonely eyes to you. The current guys don't need whistles, they need whips and chairs.
The league does what is has to, and always has, to leave the impression that it actually has some control, that it can keep the heavyweights on the ropes with fines, penalties and sanctions. They even label some of the fouls flagrant. How silly. Most are flagrant.
In 1977, when Rudy Tomjanovich ran full speed into Kermit Washington's fist, it occurred to the NBA that this was not good, especially when Rudy T almost died. So the NBA huffed and puffed, as it always does when there is the fear that negative public perception might result in lost dollars.
But it has come to realize that the fans have no expectation of actually seeing basketball anymore, nor, if they did, would they recognize it. The occasional basketball purity of passing genius Steve Nash of Phoenix, or the picks and rolls in the Jazz's John Stockton-Karl Malone days, seem to be enough of a bone for the purists.
The bulk of the time, the Lakers' Metta World Peace (spare me) is tossing a haymaker elbow at Oklahoma City's James Harden or the Clippers' Blake Griffin is trying to score while having a hammerlock applied. Has the Lakers' Kobe Bryant ever shot without being hit on the arm? A recent photo had referee Joey Crawford, with elbows to the throat of Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, holding him off because he wanted a piece of World Peace.
Last year, Andrew Bynum ended his season, as well as that of the Lakers, with a clothesline to the head of Dallas' Jose Barea. Many of the commentators the next day, while placing Bynum's maturity level near that of a third-grader, also praised evidence of a "new toughness."
After these incidents, the NBA huffs and puffs with a ruling and a fine that usually could not matter less to the guilty millionaire.
The game has changed slowly, but not so subtly, from a center-forward offense to a point guard attack. The Clippers' Chris Paul captures it perfectly in his shoe commercial: "I protect these ankles so I can break the other guy's," he says. These little guys with lightning feet and 40-inch vertical leaps crash the center and create the kind of chaos Luscutoff used to with his elbows.
The interesting part is how they get free for their dashes and darts to the basket. Their blockers are huge men, setting high picks. Often, it isn't the first pick that gets it done, but the re-pick. An established screen, in which the player stakes a position and doesn't move, is legal. These almost never are. If they don't get their hip into the defender the first time, they slide over again and again until they complete the block. They are always moving, seldom set. It is a joke.
These guys are closer to NFL guards than NBA forwards. The Lakers need to scout USC's offensive linemen for the next NBA draft.
The high pick is not the only joke that NBA referees endure. They are nicely paid because they put up with this, are really given no tools or encouragement to clean it up and probably convince themselves they are calling good games, even as players routinely take four steps to the basket and palm the ball as if they are playing team handball.
But the ultimate is the annual preseason farce. Players are told the NBA will no longer put up with all the whining and second-guessing of calls. Complaining to a ref is an automatic technical. For about three exhibition games, players are T'd up for winking at their girlfriend.
Then the real games begin, leading to the playoffs, a.k.a. WrestleMania, and every call brings yelps of injustice and a United Nations-length debate. Never have so many fouls been committed by so many innocent players.
Like Atlas, the NBA shrugs. It has huffed and puffed for show, and the trips to the bank are really good.