CHICAGO – The last time the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls stepped on the United Center court, amazing didn’t just happen, it took off its jacket and stayed a while. For 63 minutes, to be exact, in the Bulls’ 142-134 triple-overtime thriller that ranks among the most memorable of these or any other year’s playoffs. As Nate Robinson, Gerald Wallace, Joakim Noah and the rest pushed the drama to nearly four hours, those fortunate to be sitting courtside marveled at their drive and stamina …
… Except of course for Robinson, Wallace, Noah, Taj Gibson and Reggie Evans, all of whom got planted in courtside chairs before the outcome was determined. Each had fouled out at some point in overtime, and as they went, the balance of power shifted, from the Nets to the Bulls and back again in what was becoming a war of attrition rather than clutch moments or highlight plays.
Ultimately, let’s be honest, the power resided with the referees, whose determination on foul and no-foul calls became increasingly important. Brooklyn had to finish without its starting forwards. Chicago, already shorthanded, had to rely on its ninth- and 10th-men at the game’s most pivotal point. Even if that somehow added to the drama — oh, those 51 seconds of Nazr Mohammed in the third OT! — it hardly seemed like the true measure of the two teams.
And why? Because of the NBA’s disqualification rule.
Six fouls and you’re gone. Isn’t that wonderful when a fan has spent tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars on tickets to a big game? One or more of his team’s brightest stars winds up playing limited minutes and missing the biggest moments because the rule doesn’t allow any leeway for a game that stretches 63 minutes than it does for one of 48.
That’s just the most elemental problem for overtime games. There also is the disparity in how and when fouls are assessed. Playoff basketball is said to be more physical, so presumably what might have been a foul from November through March suddenly isn’t in April and May. Oh really?
We also know that some stars (usually theirs) never foul out and rarely come close while others (yours) aren’t accorded such status.
So what can be done to avoid such situations in the future, where a championship might be determined by somebody’s sixth foul and disqualification in a Game 7? Or, more insidiously, in some pivotal game of an earlier round that swings that series?
The NBA’s competition committee needs to look hard at the disqualification rules, with these possible tweaks:
- When a game goes into overtime, every player who hasn’t already fouled out should be permitted one extra foul, bumping the max to seven. We give coaches extra timeouts in OT already. Going to seven fouls would be about right, proportionally, for a game of 53 minutes compared to six fouls in 48.
- With the start of a second overtime, continuing until completion, a foul committed by a player who already has six fouls would not trigger his disqualification. Instead, the player would be allowed to stay in the game but his team would be assessed an extra penalty. A technical foul in addition to whatever free throws stemmed from the personal foul, for example. Or possession of the ball after the original free throws. It would be up to the coach to decide if the player’s continued services – and ability to play without fouling – were worth the risk of free points for the opposition.
No one wants to turn an NBA game into a hack-fest like the summer leagues, where the maximum for fouls either is bloated (10 in Las Vegas) or ignored entirely. Thus, the bonus penalties.
Still, there would be an added benefit to boosting the count: the referees would have slightly less impact on the outcome, compared to those games in which one or more of a team’s players is disqualified by fouls. That would thin the herd of conspiracy theories that emerge at this time of year.
Obviously, nothing is going to change this spring. But it’s worth considering over the summer.