"Relax! Relax! Relax...personal foul," the referee said to Luis Scola as the Rockets' starting power forward lay prostrate on the hardwood clutching the ball he'd just wrestled from Ron Artest. The face of the gritty Argentine went from incredulity to relief as he processed the fact the call was going his way.
That placating, yet forceful, command could well come to define the new hyper-regulated NBA.
While many fans (including myself) have reacted to the NBA and Commissioner David Stern's new stricter regulations on "bad behavior" in the same fashion as Scola reacted to the whistle, we may experience a similar change in perspective.
From what I could see of the technical fouls assessed to players and coaches of last night's games, and just as importantly the interactions between referees and players that prevented potential Ts, it seems like there is method to the madness...the method to curb the madness, that is.
"We have the greatest players in the world. They didn't complain in high school, or college, but when they arrive in the NBA they get a masters in complaining," Stern said to Cheryl Miller during the highly anticipated Celtics-Heat game Tuesday night. Stern and the NBA want to change the perception that NBA players are whiners, and project a more positive image for the league.
The madness? How about the howling Rasheed Wallace (gone this season, but always had capable understudies), the "I never committed a foul in my life!" face that belongs to...so many players, and yes, perhaps even the stare down of privileged NBA royalty like Kobe Bryant.
The method? Assess T's faster and more readily, a technical foul hair trigger as it were. Screaming, taunting, scowls, cursing, back talk, and menacing walking-up-to will not only be fair game, but WILL draw a technical. So it seems, the refs will all resemble Joey Crawford this season.
But wait. They will not all be Crawfords. This might actually work, because referees will have to contribute to the peace process as well. Ideally, they will work to create an atmosphere that is less vitriolic and full of shocked Kabuki-esque expressions, but that will remain acutely competitive. Something closer to pure sport, is my guess.
The critics have two major points against all this though:
1. It's going to kill the natural emotion of the game.
2. It's going to slow down the game.
Of #2, barely noticeable in any games last night. We'll see how it goes.
Of #1, this could be a bigger problem. Again, we'll have to see as the season goes on just how the refs choose to exercise their new license to T. Especially during the playoffs, will emotional plays where players get juiced up on adrenaline, anger, and joy lead to players' heads exploding as they try to hold it all in? Will the refs tee up Donkey and Shrek with a 2 for 1 special?
I certainly hope not. It's too early to say whether the new disciplinarian system is a good thing or a bad thing, but after opening night, it's certainly not as bad as I or others feared. I even saw the glimmers of goodness in it all, exemplified in the civility exhibited by players and refs (OK fine, maybe Derek Fisher is just always super civil). I say we should relax and keep an open mind.
Oh, and on a side note: that "relax" goes for Heat fans and haters alike. No one should be doubting, pouting, or jeering after Miami lost to Boston. If anything, that first jump out of the gate proves just how scary good this team will be: they did not play well together, looked disjointed for much of the game, and because they have a player who can take over against any team in the NBA, they rallied to within a couple of buckets in the second half.
That's pretty impressive, except for the fact that they have not one, but TWO players who can do that on any given night. And a third who can do it once in a blue moon, to boot. The Heat's margin for error, therefore, is pretty big. Even if they play badly, they have guys who know how to dominate games and who can and will dominate games. Once this team learns to play together, and they will, rival teams will find their margin for error slim to nothing.
I am not a Heat fan, I'm just saying is all. And I miss howlin' Sheed already, howlin' "Ball don't lie!"