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UPDATE: The NBA will not suspend Paul George for Game 7

May 2, 2014, 4:44 PM EDT

UPDATE 4:44 pm: The Indiana Pacers will have Paul George for Game 7. That according to Ken Berger at CBSSports.com:

I think this was the right call by the league. It is possible that under some older, stricter interpretations of the rule you could have gone after George (or more strongly Rasual Butler) but I think that misses the spirit of the rule — keep the guys on the bench from escalating things. That didn’t even come close to happening here. No reason to taint a Game 7 for that.

—Kurt Helin

11:27 am: The Pacers and Hawks will play a Game 7 tomorrow. Will Paul George and Rasual Butler play in it?

Let’s start with the relevant rule:

During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.

During last night’s Mike Scott-George Hill altercation, George and Butler came onto the court. The last replay here shows it best:

image

The four feet in the corner belong to Butler and George. Butler, in the black shoes, goes farthest – partway inside the 3-point arc. George, in the gold shoes, doesn’t go quite as far, but he steps all the way inbounds.

The coach in slacks and black shoes to their right is permitted to leave the bench to break up the fight. The rule applies only to players.

So, what will happen to George and Butler?

NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn will decide. His predecessor, Stu Jackson, offered his opinion:

When Jackson suspended Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a 2007 playoff game, he gave a potentially telling explanation:

“A precedent wasn’t necessary here,” Jackson said. “The rule with respect to leaving the bench area during an altercation is very clear.

“Historically, if you break it, you will get suspended, regardless of what the circumstances are.”

That was David Stern’s NBA, and with Adam Silver now in charge and Thorn determining punishment, precedent doesn’t necessarily apply.

Regardless, this is as close a call as I’ve seen. The key question: What defines “the immediate vicinity” of a bench?

During live-ball situations, players routinely wander over the sideline without penalty. Crossing the sideline alone doesn’t cause penalty. It matters only if they interfere with play.

Neither Butler nor George interfered with the fight, but that’s not the standard. The rule is designed to prevent fights from escalating and players leaving “the immediate vicinity of their bench” alone causes a suspension.

As the NBA hoped, the rule worked here. George immediately retreated to the bench after stepping forward, and though Butler went farther and wasn’t quite as quick getting back, he returned without incident, too.

But the NBA also wants to maintain the conditions that currently exist. When players fighting see players on the bench come toward the altercation – even if just a step or two before retreating – that can escalate the incident. The league also surely wants to discourage players from even considering leaving the bench.

The question might become: How relative is “immediate vicinity” to where the fight occurs?

If the fight had spilled closer to the Pacers’ bench, even if George and Butler maintained their exact position just inside the sideline, I think we’d be having an entirely different conversation. I have little doubt both would be suspended in that case.

Last night, multiple Hawks came onto the court during the fight. Look over Frank Vogel’s left shoulder in the background:

image

Atlanta’s bench was on the far end of the court, nowhere near the fight. Do the Hawks then have a larger area considered the “immediate vicinity” of their bench?

If the term is not relative to where the fight occurs, Atlanta players should be facing suspension, too.

If “immediate vicinity” is a relative term, and I suspect it is, the NBA faces a tough decision on whether George and Butler left the bench..

***

As an aside, I found this section the rule very interesting:

If five or more players leave the bench, the players will serve their suspensions alphabetically, according to the first letters of their last name.

A team must have a minimum of eight players dressed and ready to play in every game.

So, if a team’s next game is big and its star player leaves the bench during a fight, at least four of his teammates who come before him alphabetically should also leave the bench – forcing a one-game delay of the star’s suspension.

Maybe that’s what Rasual Butler was going for here? (Not really.)

It wouldn’t have worked, anyway. George ranks fifth on the team alphabetically, and Chris Copeland was already in the game. So, at most, only three teammates before George could have gotten suspended with him.

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