NEW YORK – Last season, the Celtics had one of the most gifted technical-foul accumulators in NBA history on their roster. With 14 techs, Rasheed Wallace was one behind teammate Kendrick Perkins and the Magic’s Dwight Howard for the league lead.
So after pushing the limits of on-court indecency on their way to the NBA Finals, the Celtics now have the equally impressive distinction of defining how quick a tech trigger is too quick under the league’s crackdown on griping about calls. On Wednesday night, Jermaine O’Neal discovered that under these rules, pillow talk can get you T’d up.
O’Neal was called for a foul while defending Knicks center Timofey Mozgov with 4:39 left in the second quarter of the Celtics’ 104-101 victory. O’Neal described the following exchange with official Zach Zarba.
“I walked up to him and he said, ‘Jermaine, walk away,’” O’Neal said. “I said, ‘I can’t talk to you now?’ Just like that. Soft, bedroom voice. And he gave me a tech. … To me, that’s too quick. Way too quick.”
Seconds later, noted loudmouth Kevin Garnett was whistled for a tech by referee Kane Fitzgerald, and then for another one, resulting in an ejection. Those two extremes, seconds apart in a preseason game played just a few city blocks from NBA headquarters, highlighted the problem David Stern has with his latest attempt to sanitize the league.
“I see what the league is trying to do with the consistent talking to the refs all the way down the court,” O’Neal said. “I can understand that aspect of it. But when guys walk up and ask, ‘What did I do?’ We should be able to do that.”
Officials from the NBA’s officiating department were on hand for the Knicks-Celtics game Wednesday night to explain the new threshold for technical fouls to the media. I got the shpiel last week in Miami, and this is my interpretation: What Garnett did certainly warranted two techs and an ejection. What O’Neal did warranted an explanation and that’s it.
This is what the NBA is wrestling with on the eve of its most anticipated season of the post-Jordan era. Stern went after the players with a dress code years ago, and he’s got the barber sheers out for all the haircuts owners have in mind for players in collective bargaining. Now, Stern is out to strip the players of more control by stopping the constant bickering about calls. If anything is more inherent to basketball than complaining about calls, I don’t know what it is. But this is where we are.
Until both players and referees adjust to Stern’s latest new world order, we have a mess – a needless controversy of the NBA’s own making, as if the league isn’t good enough at unintended controversy and conspiratorial hooey, especially when it comes to the officiating.
“It’s going to make it look like it’s about the officials,” O’Neal said.
Zarba, Fitzgerald and Kevin Fehr were on a roll Wednesday night, as if they were the Big Three everybody came to see. But it isn’t their fault. According to O’Neal, the look in the officials’ eyes after dishing out four techs to O’Neal, Garnett and Mozgov in a matter of minutes was, “I’m just doing my job.”
And they weren’t the only ones. I counted 12 techs in seven preseason games Wednesday night. I didn’t go to the videotape, but I’m willing to bet that a good number wouldn’t have been techs a year ago.
“I think they’re going to have to take a second look and see how it affects the games and especially the stars,” the Celtics’ Paul Pierce said. “You know people pay good money to come out and see the stars play. Even though we have to play by the rules, I think there has to be some kind of leniency. When a guy turns and just looks at you for a technical, that can cost you a game. That can cost you a player coming out of the game. I think that’s something they’re going to have to look at real hard. This is an emotional game and players are going to use emotion and that’s not going to stop.”
There is a middle ground to be found here, and it isn’t Pierce’s position. (It certainly isn’t Celtics Hall of Fame announcer Tommy Heinsohn’s .) But whatever it is, someone had better find it before the story of Miami’s dynamic duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is overwhelmed by the story of technical fouls.
“Our research shows that fans think NBA players complain too much,” NBA vice president Stu Jackson said on a recent conference call. Just wait until they find out what fans think after watching highlight after highlight of players getting T’d up and tossed during the first week of the regular season.
This is the way Joe Borgia, the NBA’s vice president of referee operations, explained it in the media seminar held last week prior to the Heat’s preseason opener in Miami. Demonstrative and continuous displays of emotion will not be tolerated under the new rules. Players will be allowed to display emotion in the heat of the moment, as long as it isn’t over the top – and as long as they get under control and walk away. To drive home the point, the league has raised the fines for technicals, too.
But Borgia also said that give-and-take between players and refs would be allowed to continue in a civilized way. In other words, what O’Neal did Wednesday night should have been allowed. If a player simply is asking for an explanation of a call, he is supposed to be entitled to the explanation. Just no follow-up questions, and no aggressive displays of emotion.
Pretty simple. But to no one’s surprise, neither the players nor the refs understand where the line is yet. That’s a sign that the line needs to be moved.
“I think officials will have a better feel on it,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “J.O., I was very surprised because he never raised his voice. He didn’t walk away, but it wasn’t anything demonstrative. We’re going to figure it out; it’s just going to take some time. When you talk to the officials, they don’t get it yet. They’re trying to figure it out. It’ll get figured out by Game 1.”
There was an effort a couple of years ago to crack down on the players’ excessive complaining. It was a story for a while, and then things went back to business as usual. With the players wielding all the control in free agency this past summer, and with a potentially ugly CBA fight under way, the days of zero tolerance are here.
The players will adjust. Once they do, the refs will give them more leeway. There has to be give-and-take. Every call and non-call on an NBA court can be debated and reviewed all night. Some disagreement is OK, if done respectfully. A lot of it isn’t OK, and that’s the part Stern is trying to get his referees to eradicate.
“It’s about all of us,” Rivers said. “It’s not just the officials. It’s the players and the coaches. We’ve got to keep trying to make this a better product. And so if people smarter than me have decided that this is what we need to do, then we need to do it and we need to adhere to it. I don’t think it’s that hard.”
No, it shouldn’t be. And ultimately, it won’t be. As long as what you're seeing so far in the preseason isn't the norm.