N.B.A. Soft-Pedals Suspensions for Lakers and Rockets’ Fistfight

N.B.A. Soft-Pedals Suspensions for Lakers and Rockets’ Fistfight

The next time you watch footage from the fourth-quarter commotion that stained LeBron James’s home debut with the Los Angeles Lakers, take note of the reaction from Houston Rockets guard James Harden.

Right at the start of it all, when he was shoved under the basket by Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, Harden exercised total, textbook, veteran restraint. Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, two fellow vets whose mutual contempt stretches back many years, did not.

Let’s be clear here: Rondo is the more culpable of the two. Far, far more. Spitting in another person’s face, from close range, is indefensible. It’s in the running to go down as the career regular-season low point for the complicated player/personality known as Playoff Rondo.

But both Rondo and Paul, who has his own reputation for provocative on-court tactics, squared up to each other and thus put themselves in position for something bad to happen after the Lakers’ Lance Stephenson had steered Ingram away from Harden and things seemed to have calmed down.

They’re both lucky, though. Ditto for Ingram. The suspensions meted out Sunday night — four games for Ingram, three games for Rondo and two games for Paul — really could (and should) have been stiffer when you also factor in the timing of all this.

Physical fighting is a rarity in the modern N.B.A. Ingram’s suspension is the league’s longest for on-court misconduct since a seven-gamer incurred by Metta World Peace — who was at Saturday’s game as a spectator — for a vicious elbow to Harden’s head in April 2012.

Yet the scenes from this Staples Center scuffle were especially disorienting — not so much because of the severity of the punches thrown but because of the calendar. You simply don’t expect to see fisticuffs during the opening week of the regular season.

This early in the N.B.A. campaign, just five nights and two of 82 games into a regular-season schedule that consumes six months, Rondo and Paul have to know better. They have to be smarter irrespective of their longstanding beef, which has been bubbling since at least 2009, when Boston reportedly explored trading Rondo for Paul, then with the Hornets.

Leniency should not have been an option for the league office at this embryonic stage of the season, lest players everywhere come away with the belief that punches, spitting and face-jabs are offenses that can be explained away.

I expected louder message-sending with these sanctions, especially for Ingram as the chief escalator of all the tension — and for Rondo’s spitting. Not that Paul is blameless here. Video confirming that Rondo had indeed spat in Paul’s face as they were jawing at each other will inevitably justify Paul’s angry reaction to some. But, again, if you watch the slow-motion footage available all over social media and study Paul’s demeanor in the moments before the spittle flew, others would surely argue that he had taken a combative posture he didn’t need to.

Paul and Rondo, furthermore, also have prior misdemeanors on their N.B.A. disciplinary records, which tend to be a variable employed in suspension math.

Back to Ingram — sure, playing against Harden is undeniably frustrating, given how often the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player flails his arms and seeks contact in his quest to draw fouls. Give him that.

Yet Ingram is actually guilty of escalating the tension on two occasions after his initial shove — first by confronting the referee Jason Phillips in a hostile manner and then by throwing a wild punch of his own upon returning to the scrum around Paul and Rondo after he had been ushered away from it. A lengthy ban, then, was a no-brainer, despite Ingram’s pristine record.

It was just as clear, even from the chaotic start of a saga that was quickly dubbed #SpitGate on Twitter, that Rondo and Paul could not get away with mere one-game suspensions, as seen as recently as January of last season when Toronto’s Serge Ibaka and Miami’s James Johnson threw one punch at each other. Way too much happened here.

The per-game financial hit isn’t as substantial for Ingram ($39,704) or Rondo ($62,069) as it for Paul ($245,891), but these are likewise further setbacks that the Lakers didn’t need. Not after an 0-2 start to the LeBron Era that has exposed L.A.’s unfamiliarity, as well as its dearth of outside shooting and lack of rim protection. James’s introduction to the Western Conference has been predictably unforgiving. For all the points that the heretofore mild-mannered Ingram won with teammates for standing up for himself and his teammates, playing short-handed for the rest of the month isn’t going to help the new Lakers as they try to find themselves.

But both teams, and all three players, have cause to be grateful. I wouldn’t have quibbled with a breakdown closer to seven games for Ingram, five for Rondo and three for Paul, for tone-setting purposes for the rest of the season but also to censure those responsible for dulling the shine of an otherwise wonderful opening week of the season.

Instead of focusing on all the wild scores out of the 1980s we’ve been treated to, we had our collective basketball weekend monopolized by unsavory stuff. As opposed to reveling in the fastest pace of play in nearly 30 years — Small Sample Size Warning in effect! — we’re already forced to look ahead to the Dec. 13 meeting of the Lakers and Rockets in Houston and wonder aloud how much tension will carry over.

It’s only 53 days away.

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