When Robert Horry hockey-checked Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash into the scorer’s table in Game 4 of the Spurs-Suns 2007 playoff series, it became the microcosmic event for Suns fans and their hate for San Antonio. Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire were suspended for leaving the bench area, running to Nash’s side.
The NBA hit them each with a one-game suspension, the Suns lost the series after slipping in Game 5. Another scar was added to the Suns’ postseason past that was finally washed away — to a degree — in 2010.
The NBA’s by-the-book reaction came from Rule No. 12, Section VII, Subsection C. of the NBA’s rule book: “During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000. The suspension will commence prior to the start of their next game.”
So on Thursday, when Indiana Pacers forward Paul George left the bench with teammate Rasual Butler as an altercation broke out between Atlanta Hawks forward Mike Scott and Pacers teammate George Hill, everyone quickly pointed to 2007. George was facing the same poorly written rule.
Then again, he wasn’t facing the same decision-makers who would interpret that rule.
Former NBA executive VP Stu Jackson, who oversaw the Suns’ suspensions way back when, went to Twitter to explain his interpretation of the rule. He used the word “vicinity” in the rulebook to give George a pass — indeed he only stepped a foot off the bench — while assuming Butler would earn a suspension.
Ultimately, neither player was punished for Saturday’s Game 7.
— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) May 2, 2014
Of course, it seems ironic — in a disappointing way for the Suns — that Stoudemire and Diaw were punished by a letter-of-the-law bit in the rulebook that’s ironically not written very letter-of-the-law-like. Although they did leave the bench’s vicinity, if we’re using that word loosely, it’s also a matter of the context. Was there an altercation in 2007 like there was between Scott and Hill this past Thursday?
ESPN Insider’s Amin Elhassan was a basketball operations intern in 2007, and he surely remembers how painful the suspension was. The Suns viewed it as a hypocritical decision considering the team submitted a claim that Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen had also left the bench in an earlier altercation, which was deemed not to be so. Francisco Elson had fouled Suns swingman James Jones so hard that the Spurs players jumped up, as if they thought there would be a reaction — Jones simply got up without incident.
So then we can get into whether Steve Nash (and Raja Bell) were actually in an altercation with Horry.
The Indiana-Atlanta was different in many ways, but the reason it quickly became tied to the Suns’ seemingly mild bench-clearing incident of 2007 was pretty obvious. People feared the NBA would react in the same way by suspending the Pacers’ best player, and they knew it would be the wrong move.