On November 19, 2004 chaos ran supreme at the end of the Pistons Pacers game. Almost exactly 17 years to the day after the Malice at the Palace, another fracas happened approximately 30 miles to the south of Auburn Hills. But the similarities end there.
Let’s look at what happened between Isaiah Stewart and LeBron James, how the NBA has responded, and differentiate a simple NBA Melee from the Malice.
With 9:18 left in the 3rd Quarter, Detroit’s Jerami Grant was fouled by Anthony Davis on a run of the mill shot attempt. After missing the first of two free throws, Grant sank the second. As that was happening, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, and Isaiah Stewart were engaged in a box-out scenario in case of a potential rebound. While trying to split the two Lakers, Stewart did… something, which LeBron took exception to.
We know this because in a very uncharacteristic act, James swung his elbow/arm back, well above shoulder height, and caught Stewart near the eye with a partially closed fist.
Stewart staggered back while LeBron sheepishly extended an arm towards the Piston, in a sort of apology. Stewart then reacted like someone who has just gotten punched in the eye and went face to face with LeBron to exchange words. It’s impossible to know what was said. It’s also impossible to forget the chaos that followed.
With more and more blood streaming from the cut above his eye, Stewart, who spent time boxing while growing up in Rochester, New York charged towards LeBron. Players from both sides, coaches, and officials struggled to restrain the Pistons’ center not once, but on multiple occasions. Stewart continued to try to bulldoze his way towards the face of the NBA. Cade Cunningham, Detroit’s rookie showed impressive leadership in trying to calm down and hold back Stewart on his multiple charges towards LeBron. As the scrap continued on the court, fans at Little Caesars Arena were shown the replay, and immediately, the legendary Pistons emcee urged the fans to stay in their seats.
You could hear the fear of another Malice-level incident in his voice.
Luckily, it did not come to that. By the end of the whole situation, LeBron had been assessed a flagrant 2 foul and was ejected, Isaiah Stewart was assessed two technicals for his antics and ejected, and Russell Westbrook was assessed a technical for… Well, I’m not entirely sure why.
The NBA’s Reaction
After a day of pundits going back and forth on what should happen, the NBA finally handed out the punishments to the players involved.
Honestly, it’s not enough. And if you spent any part of Monday on sports media, you would likely assume I mean the punishment on Stewart. You would be wrong. LeBron James got off way too light.
Let me start by saying I am a huge LeBron James fan, even though he has historically played for some of my least favorite teams. There is no argument that could ever be made for LeBron being a dirty player. Since entering the league in 2003, he has been the perfect role model both on and off the court. In fact, this is his first-ever suspension and only the second time he’s been ejected in 19 seasons.
But just because he’s not a dirty player doesn’t mean it wasn’t a dirty play.
The Lakers are not doing well to start the season. LeBron himself missed 8 games already with an injury. And at the time of the incident Sunday night, James only had 10 points and was -15 for a game in which his team was losing by double-digits to the young, very much rebuilding Pistons. I am not going to argue intent as it’s impossible to do so. I would wager he did not intend to open up Stewart’s eyebrow and that he was simply reacting out of frustration. That however does not excuse what he did, and the manner in which he did it.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I feel his suspension should have been more severe. He incited the entire altercation. Stewart comes off looking worse in the replays because of his reaction, but the only one who made contact with another player was LeBron. It wasn’t until Stewart noticed the blood running down his face that he started to escalate.
The other out-of-character thing LeBron did was refuse to speak to the media after the game. LeBron talks about EVERYTHING. It’s one of the best things about him. His silence on this matter is weird, and maybe a little telling.
Was It Enough?
In my opinion, the 2 game suspension for Stewart was warranted. More would’ve been suspect, and it really couldn’t be less. But the man who came out bleeding and needing stitches above his eye got a more severe punishment than the person who hit him. Do you really think that would’ve been the case if the roles were reversed? I doubt it. LeBron should’ve gotten at least the same number of games in his suspension, though I would’ve preferred to see 3 games. If precedent mattered, this play was very similar to a moment in the 2015 Playoffs where JR Smith hit Jae Crowder in a very similar manner and got a two-game suspension as a result. Many will argue LeBron missing for the Lakers only game in Madison Square Garden is “huge,” which maybe it is, but it’s still only one game.
As it stands, I am very glad they will both be on the court together next Sunday in LA where they can hopefully put this behind them.
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