Just so there is no misunderstanding, let me answer this question first:
Do I believe NBA Playoff games are actually fixed?
No, I do not. I don’t think that Commissioner Adam Silver now, or David Stern before him, is sitting in the rafters of NBA arenas and pulling strings that make puppets, er, officials, blow whistles when someone deigns to breathe on LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
But if you told me you had video evidence of such …
I’m kidding. You know, more or less.
But the NBA does have a credibility problem; one made worse by the way it handled the Zach Randolph-Steven Adams situation in the Grizzlies-Thunder series.
I’ve looked at the video of the “incident” in slow motion and in real time. It looks far worse in real time, which might or might not be more damning. But it’s pretty clear that Randolph did not deliver a hard, closed-fist punch.
A partially closed-fist push/punch? Yeah, that’s probably fair.
And it was ill-timed, seeing as it was Game 6 of a playoff series. But no technical or flagrant foul was assessed at the time. And Randolph would later say when he learned the league had suspended him for Game 7, “I was shocked.”
Chris Broussard, who covers the NBA for ESPN, took to Twitter and said: “ZBO suspension is ridiculous! That’s a push not a punch.”
Meantime, Adams does have a talent for bringing the NBA police down on opponents. Randolph joined a large club of players who have been fined or suspended for mixing it up with Adams: Vince Carter, Nate Robinson, Jordan Hamilton and Larry Sanders.
But Game 7 and the chance to advance in the postseason was not hanging in the balance in those incidents. In this one, it was.
I asked Randolph if the NBA had given him a choice between missing Game 7 and taking a 10-game hit at the start of next season would he have made that trade.
“With quickness,” Randolph said. “With quickness.”
Also worth noting: The punishment was so out of line for the offense that Randolph’s teammates didn’t blame him.
“I don’t think one guy was mad at Zach,” point guard Mike Conley said. “Everybody was supportive. We were all angry, just like him. Why would they do this now? Even though it’s not right for him to have pushed him or whatever he did, that’s the playoffs. That’s what happens. And it happens a lot.”
Two points here: First, Mike Conley is maybe the single most reasonable professional athlete I’ve ever met. The league just gave him The Sportsmanship Award, for crying out loud. So when he says something like this, the league ought to listen.
Secondly, the question of “why would they do this now?” goes to the crux of the NBA’s problem. Fans, not just in Memphis but everywhere, automatically leap to the conclusion the discipline was what it was because the league so preferred the star-laden Thunder – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – advance than the plucky little Grizzlies.
Consider the commercials that aired over and over during national telecasts of Grizzlies playoff games. Durant and the Sprint “Framily” plan. Chris Paul and his “twin” Cliff in the State Farm commercials. Blake Griffin in Kia ads. The LeBron App.
Innocently or not, it pushes the narrative that the NBA wants its biggest stars playing for championships and everyone else better stand down. You’re welcome to take the superstars to Game 7, but don’t send them home early.
“It runs its course on you a little bit,” Conley said of the NBA’s over-the-top star treatment. “But you can’t do anything about it. Those guys are obviously deserving of all that.”
Just like the Grizzlies were deserving of having their leading scorer and rebounder for Game 7. The suspension could have been longer and served at the beginning of next season and the integrity of the series and the league could have been preserved.
Only one problem with that, of course.
Z-Bo’s not the face of the Sprint Framily Plan.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.