Tempers flared when the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns clashed at AmericanAirlines Arena, with an evening of physical play resulting in a handful of technical fouls and a trio of third-quarter ejections.
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Business picked up in earnest with just under nine minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Heat holding a 12-point advantage over the visiting Suns. Miami point guard Goran Dragic — a member of the Suns just two weeks ago, before he expressed displeasure with the Suns’ three-point-guard rotiation and a lack of trust in the Phoenix front office and publicly requested a trade, which landed him in Florida and earned some harsh words from Suns general manager Ryan McDonough — stole the ball from Phoenix forward P.J. Tucker and took off on a fast break.
Suns forward Markieff Morris, who’s been a bit salty of late, hustled back to snuff out Dragic’s layup attempt, and he did so with extreme prejudice and physicality:
Morris met Dragic in the air, missing his right-handed swipe at the ball but body-bumping his former teammate off-course, sending him tumbling to the deck under the basket and rolling back past the photographers’ area along the baseline. After reviewing the play, the referees assessed Morris a flagrant foul-2 for “unnecessary and excessive” contact, earning him an automatic ejection at the 8:43 mark of the third quarter.
You could argue that the play didn’t merit a flagrant-2 — Morris didn’t seem to be acting with malice, he seemed to make a play on the ball, and Dragic certainly fell hard, that seemed to be due more to the high-speed, mid-air collision than because Morris acted in an “unnecessary and excessive” manner. Then again, you could also watch the play and say that Morris got his hands up high, that going straight through Dragic’s body did represent an excessive means of trying to contest the shot, and that by creating that collision, Morris is responsible for Dragic’s careening aftermath.
In any event, Morris finished with 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting to go with five rebounds and one assist in 21 1/2 minutes of play before his early exit. Dragic got up a bit gingerly, but hit the two free throws that came with the flagrant and stayed in the game until picking up hsi fifth personal foul less than one minute later.
If Morris’ hard foul represented simmering tensions between two clubs fighting for playoff spots in their respective conferences, the bad blood boiled over just four minutes later, when Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and Phoenix’s Alex Len — two big, good, young starting centers who’d been bumping and needling one another all game long — decided the time had come to make their festering discontent both blatant and ground-and-pound-based:
Whiteside grabbed the offensive rebound after a Dwyane Wade miss and threw down a dunk in Len’s mug. While attempting to defend the shot, Len whacked Whiteside in the face. After he got smacked, Whiteside didn’t exactly try to prevent his body from coming down directly on top of Len. (Again, they’d been doing this sort of stuff to one another just about all night.)
The Phoenix big man responded to this by shoving Whiteside to the ground. Whiteside responded by executing a pretty sound double-leg takedown and bringing the 7-foot-1 Ukrainian to the ground, drawing the attention of the officials, their teammates and the hootin’-and-hollerin’ Miami crowd.
Your man Rod Steiger-at-SeaWorld was pretty amped up about the fracas:
No punches were thrown and no teammates appeared to leave the immediate areas of their benches, so, all told, to borrow a phrase from one of the finer films of 1991, they ain’t no brawl. And yet, for their roles in the tussle, both Len and Whiteside got the gate, too, exiting the contest at the 4:26 mark of the third. Whiteside finished with 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 10 rebounds (six on the offensive glass), two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Len had 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting, 11 rebounds, two steals and an assist in 27 minutes.
After three ejections in less than five minutes, cooler heads prevailed … for literally 42 seconds.
That’s how long it took for Heat forward Henry Walker — plucked off the scrap heap, re-signed to a second 10-day contract earlier Monday — to team with “The Birdman,” Chris Andersen, in lowering the boom on unejected Suns twin Marcus Morris as he drove to the basket:
After initially ruling Walker’s smackdown a common foul, the officials went to the videotape and upgraded it to a flagrant-1, meaning nobody got ejected. Kind of boring, all things considered, right?
The NBA announced Tuesday that Len will receive a $20,000 fine for his role in the tussle with Whiteside, who himself earned a $15,000 fine for the same incident. Markieff Morris also got a notice from the league office for a $15,000 fine for his ejection. That makes for a total of $50,000 in fines spread over three players, although none will miss any games due to suspension. That outcome could be big for both teams as they attempt to keep pace with several other teams vying for the final playoff spots in their respective conferences.
The haymakers eventually ceased and both sides eventually got back to the business of basketball, which was much more Miami’s cup of tea on this particular night. The Heat kept control throughout the fourth and pulled away late, finishing on a 16-9 run over the final five minutes to seal a 115-98 win. Despite dealing with foul trouble throughout, Dragic did his fair share of damage to his former team, scoring 21 points (5-for-9 from the field, 2-for-2 from 3-point land, 9-for-9 from the free-throw line) in just 15 minutes of floor time. Unheralded rookie Tyler Johnson led the way with a career-high 26 points in 26 minutes off the Miami bench, making 10 of his 13 shots and adding three steals in the victory, which improved the Heat to 26-33 on the season.
It was yet another disappointing loss for the Suns, who turned in a dismal shooting performance — 42.3 percent from the floor, 7-for-31 from long distance, and only 25-for-38 on freebies — while committing 19 turnovers that led to 22 Miami points. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe each had 20 for the Suns, who have lost 10 of their last 13 games and now sit at 31-30, 2 1/2 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
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