NBA AM: How Suspensions Affect Series


Twitter can attempt to #FreeDraymond all they want, but the fact of the matter is that the guy can’t seem to help himself when it comes to throwing low blows. After a certain number of flagrant fouls, suspensions happen. Don’t be mad at the scorekeepers, folks.

Regardless of how you feel about Green’s forthcoming suspension in Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals, we do know that Green’s absence gives Cleveland a great chance to extend the series. Whether they can win the last two with Green back in the lineup is a completely different story, but for now we’re looking at one of the best players in the league missing a potential series-clinching game on a suspension. The implications of this are pretty huge.

It is not, of course, the first time that a big-name player has been forced to miss an important playoff game due to suspension. Here’s a look at some of the most notable recent NBA playoff suspensions and what kind of an effect that suspension had on the outcome of the series:

J.R. Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2015 – Not that J.R. Smith is any stranger to postseason suspensions (he also was held out of a postseason game in 2013 for getting into it with Jason Terry, then of the Boston Celtics), but it was just a year ago that he found himself smack-dab in the middle of controversy for a nasty elbow that he delivered to the face of Celtics guard Jae Crowder. Considering the Cavaliers had a 21-point lead in the second half of a Game 4 that would eventually complete a second-round sweep of Boston, it was a deeply impulsive and irresponsible thing to do, and it resulted in a two-game suspension to start the Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls.

With Kevin Love out for the postseason after separating his shoulder in the Boston series and Kyrie Irving playing at less than 100 percent, Cleveland could have used Smith in those first two home games against the Bulls. Chicago looked great and stole Game 1 on the road with Smith not even in the building, but fortunately for the Cavaliers, they overcame Smith’s suspension and moved on to the Finals anyway.

Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies, 2014 – The Grizzlies without Randolph back in 2014 weren’t so lucky. Granted, it was “just” a first-round series, but four of the first five games in that series were overtime games, and coming into Game 6, Memphis headed home with a chance to clinch against a really tough OKC squad. Down by 17 halfway through the fourth quarter, though, rookie Steven Adams got under Randolph’s skin enough to get the big man to throw a punch. Rules are rules in the NBA, and making malicious contact with another player’s face or head means a one-game suspension, no questions asked. That means Randolph and his 18.2 points and 8.2 rebounds average for the first six games of that series had to miss the deciding Game 7 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder won that game and the series.

Amar’e Stoudemire, Boris Diaw, Phoenix Suns | Robert Horry, San Antonio Spurs, 2007 – While we mostly remember “Big Shot Rob” Horry for the insane clutch shots he seemed to knock down in every NBA Finals he played in, one of the darker spots on his resume includes a nasty body check to reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash during Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference Finals, which was enough to get himself and a couple of Phoenix Suns suspended in very controversial fashion.

The NBA had a rule that would suspend any player for stepping foot onto the court during an altercation, with the hopeful outcome being that bench-clearing brawls would become a thing of the past. Both Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got some toes over the line in trying to see what happened with Nash on the sidelines, so upon review the league came down hard and took those two guys out of Game 5, along with Horry, naturally.

With two of Phoenix’s best players out of the lineup, San Antonio cut through the Suns like a hot knife through butter, and Phoenix would never recover in that series. That was supposed to be that year’s pseudo-Finals, but the series took a dark turn after that play and just never recovered.

Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks, 2006 – Mavericks fans would rather just pretend like 2006 never happened, which might be for the best considering all the awfulness they experienced in that year’s playoffs. Terry, in a scrum for a loose ball during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals that year, sent a below-the-belt fist-bump to San Antonio Spurs swingman Michael Finley. The refs missed it during the game but dished out the suspension after reviewing the footage. Terry did what he did, and it cost him a game.

That game just so happened to be Game 6, which the Mavericks lost, sending the series to a Game 7. Dirk Nowitzki’s herculean efforts saved them and pushed them to their first-ever Finals appearance, which would have been great had they not undergone one of the league’s most historic playoff collapses. Before all of that, though, the Terry suspension stung.

Larry Johnson, New York Knicks | Alonzo Mourning, Miami HEAT, 1998 – Anybody who grew up watching basketball in the early 1990s loved watching Zo and LJ play together for the Charlotte Hornets, but by 1998 they both had moved onto different teams that just so happened to face up against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. With mere seconds to go in Game 4 of that series, Johnson and Mourning got tangled up in a way that led to actual, horrifying haymakers getting thrown. None of the punches actually landed, which is great news for the health of both of these gigantic men’s brains.

However, it wasn’t great news for their availability in Game 5, and since Mourning was so much more important to his team (Miami had no viable backup center that season), the Knicks cruised to a 17-point win Game 5.

Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Charlie Ward, New York Knicks, 1997 – The Knicks were the bad boys of the ‘90s and constantly found themselves mired in controversy following on-court boxing matches. The year before the big Zo/LJ fight, the Knicks and HEAT once again faced each other, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It got ugly in the fourth quarter of Game 5, when Charles Oakley showed his frustration, down 10 in the fourth quarter with just a couple of minutes left to play, by shoving around Mourning enough to get himself ejected. A few moments later, all hell broke loose when HEAT forward P.J. Brown body-slammed Knicks point guard Charlie Ward into photographers’ row, as that led to just about every Knicks star clearing the bench (they had been sitting because the game was out of hand) and injecting themselves into the fray.

Ewing, Houston, Johnson, Starks and Ward all received one-game suspensions from the league, who actually had to stagger the missed games just to give New York a puncher’s chance the rest of the series. Some players were suspended for Game 6, and others for Game 7. Remarkably, no HEAT players were given any sort of suspension.

It’s no wonder those teams were at it again just a year later, even deeper into the playoffs.

Derek Harper, New York Knicks, 1994 – In the first year after Michael Jordan’s first retirement, the Bulls bumped up against an extremely motivated New York Knicks team, but somehow New York’s Derek Harper ended up in a fight with a Bulls reserve named Jo Jo English. It cleared the benches (right in front of Commissioner David Stern, no less), but only Harper and English received suspensions. New York lost Game 4 of that series without their starting point guard, but would go onto to win the series in seven games.


In all of these games, the team that lost the better player(s) lost the first game in which they were suspended, which bodes well for Cleveland in Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals. What doesn’t often happen, however, is a suspension completely turning around the momentum of a playoff series. It has happened before, but more often than not the shorthanded team takes it lumps and then gets back on track.

Knowing this year’s Warriors, it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s exactly what ends up happening in these Finals.


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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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