The NBA is looking to crack down on flopping. (Paul Connors / Associated…)
It was hard to tell what, exactly, the Oklahoma City Thunder was preparing to do.
In a routine as carefully choreographed as any Broadway production, Russell Westbrook and James Harden would flex their muscles before games last season. Brawny forward Serge Ibaka would shadow box with end-of-the-bench teammate Royal Ivey.
Then Ibaka would pretend to kick a soccer ball to Kevin Durant in front of the scorer's table.
This season, the Thunder and every other team will have to stick to basketball.
Thank you, David Stern.
The NBA is cracking down on lengthy pregame rituals and other annoyances such as flopping and the exaggerated leg kicks once favored by sharpshooter Reggie Miller. These will be among Stern's final decrees as the league commissioner prepares to leave his post in February 2014 after 30 years on the job.
Some might say the changes were a long time coming.
Flopping had become a mysterious plague, forcing players' legs to buckle and their arms to flail in the air at the slightest hint of contact. After years of watching Derek Fisher out-act courtside observer Jack Nicholson, enough was enough.
Those who are found to have flopped after a video review of games will be penalized on an escalating scale. A first offense will trigger a warning and a second transgression a $5,000 fine. Suspensions could start with the sixth infraction.
"If it's enforced correctly, someone will be suspended after Game 1 of this year," said former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst for TNT. "They'll get the warning and the six flops all in one game because I think it's become that big an epidemic."
Pregame rituals had become an even more widespread scourge.
Miami Heat superstar LeBron James liked to perform a chalk toss and slap hands with teammate Mario Chalmers, among other silly antics. Dwyane Wade would hug his mother, perform pull-ups on the rim and make various signals to the home crowd before tipoff.
Portland Trail Blazers guard Nolan Smith would pretend to punch teammate Wesley Matthews in the stomach before giving him a hug.
Every imaginary jab and unnecessary delay made league officials want to double over in pain.
"We had thought it had gotten a little bit out of hand," Stern said in a conference call with reporters.
The league's hurry-it-up response was to say it would actually enforce the existing rule that gives teams 90 seconds from the end of player introductions to be at center court for tipoff. Those who don't comply will receive a delay-of-game warning, which could result in a technical foul if a team is penalized for a subsequent delay during the game.
"Will we make a big deal about it if it's 95 seconds?" Stern said of the pregame rituals. "Probably not. But it's not fair to players on teams who are visiting a building who get called out to center court to start the game and they become spectators at a game before the game."
The change will be felt most in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder had taken as long as three minutes after introductions to prepare for tipoff.
"There's no question we probably led the league in fist bumps, hugs, dances, karate chops, kick boxing, shadow boxing, every imaginable thing," Thunder Coach Scott Brooks told reporters in Oklahoma City.
Players say they will try to retain as much of their routines as possible in the allotted time.
It may be like James Bond trying to get the girl and save the world in 90 seconds. Durant was still slapping hands with teammates during one preseason game when the ball was tossed into the air.
Those who say fans are being deprived of a worthy spectacle should listen to someone who knows something about such things.
"Let me really explain the showtime to you," former Lakers superstar Magic Johnson said. "It's watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It's watching Kobe Bryant and [Pau] Gasol, Dwight Howard. It's watching Kevin Durant, Westbrook and [James] Harden; it's watching Derrick Rose when he gets back being healthy; it's watching Chris Paul do his thing, Blake Griffin dunking. It's watching Kevin Love grab all those rebounds and be able to shoot three-pointers and do the things that he does.
"I mean, that's the real show. The show is not how they shake hands. The show is not the flop. I am glad they're taking it out. Thank God."