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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Rockets' Fake Toughness

The L.A. Clippers just defeated the Houston Rockets 113-102. Instead of taking their loss and going home, several Rockets players--specifically, James Harden (who did not even play, due to injury), Chris Paul, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza--tried to get into the Clippers' locker room, apparently to confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. You may recall that several Houston players, "led" by Harden and Ariza, engaged in similar postgame conduct last season after beating the Dallas Mavericks in a chippy contest. When Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni coached the Phoenix Suns, he watched two of his players get suspended for a crucial playoff game after leaving the bench area in a display of fake toughness, so he already knows the consequences of such foolishness and he should  talk to his team about this, if he has not already done so; it is difficult to picture a championship coach such as Phil Jackson or Bill Belichick letting his players get away with such selfish and stupid conduct. Championship level players and coaches put the team first and do not let their in the moment emotions get in the way of their big picture collective goals.

Real toughness in the NBA is displayed by playing defense, focusing on the game plan and executing in the playoffs (Ariza was a solid role player for the Lakers' 2009 championship team, so he at least knows something about those things). Fake toughness in the NBA is displayed by acting like you want to get in a fistfight, knowing full well that there is an armada of security guards and police officers at every NBA arena. Years back, Tim Thomas--speaking about Kenyon Martin--had the perfect term for these kind of antics: "fugazi," meaning "fake."

Of course, arena security intervened before the Rockets players could get very far into the Clippers' locker room. Subsequent reports stated that the L.A. Police Department sent additional officers to the arena. TNT's Inside the NBA crew--most notably Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal--found the story to be hilarious and I laughed so hard at their comments that I almost had tears in my eyes. Barkley mocked the Rockets for sending several guys to go after one guy who is wearing a walking cast (the injured Austin Rivers). Barkley imitated Blake Griffin--"6-10, 225, one of the strongest guys in the league" in Barkley's words--calling the police, supposedly terrified that the "5-10" Chris Paul was going to beat him up. Barkley also wryly noted that none of the reports indicated that the Rockets players were looking for Patrick Beverly, because "he's for real." Barkley joked that the Houston players are guys he would have wanted to see coming into the locker room during his playing days so that he could improve his (boxing) record.

Just before TNT ran a clip of Griffin's post-game comments, Kenny Smith joked, "They don't have to look for him. He's right there." Of course, the last thing the Rockets really wanted to do was actually find Griffin and Griffin was less than concerned about the Rockets' postgame foolishness: "We were where we were supposed to be. We were in our locker room. So whatever happens over there--I mean, we can't control what anybody else does. We control what we did. Everybody was in our seats. That's it. You should ask them." Griffin was asked what Ariza said to him during the game before both players were ejected and Griffin replied, "He asked me if I was still coming to his birthday party. And I said I was going to try."

In the immortal words of L.L. Cool J, Houston's fake tough guys "couldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight/Wouldn't throw a rock in a ghost town." People who confuse fake toughness with real toughness will inevitably fold in clutch situations more often than not, because they do not have a championship mentality. Remember when Matt Barnes faked like he was going to throw a ball at Kobe Bryant's face in a game several years ago and Bryant did not even blink? He knew that Barnes was not going to do anything, so Bryant just stood his ground and smiled. Bryant was a real NBA tough guy, someone who played through numerous injuries and won five championships.

I would love to see guys like Harden, Paul, Green or Ariza (and Golden State's Draymond Green, the serial groin puncher who knows that no one is going to swing on him at the risk of being suspended) play in the 1980s NBA (never mind the 1960s NBA) and try to pull off their fake tough guy act; in today's NBA, if you breathe on a perimeter player it is a foul but in the old days if you drove into the lane you could expect to be knocked down. Harden's incessant flopping and Paul's Napoleon complex posturing would have led to different results during that era--and let Harden, Paul, Green and Ariza show up in Detroit's locker room after a game circa 1989 and see what would have happened. Or let Draymond Green punch someone below the belt during that era, when players often administered their own justice: Robert Parish once cold-cocked Bill Laimbeer after Laimbeer got out of hand and Parish was not even called for a foul, let alone ejected (Parish subsequently received a $7500 fine and a one game suspension but in today's NBA he likely would have received a much larger fine and a multiple game suspension). Near the end of Parish's career, he played for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan told Parish during practice that he was going to kick his butt. The seven footer calmly looked at Jordan and told him to come get some. Jordan reconsidered his position on the matter and never challenged Parish in that way again. Harden, Paul and the other Rockets have never faced anyone like Parish or other 1980s era players, so the Rockets feel free to act a fool.

The NBA had to institute flagrant fouls and other rules to cut back on fighting; no one wants to ever see another gruesome incident like Kermit Washington nearly killing Rudy Tomjanovich. However, the rules that have cleaned up the sport have also enabled guys who in previous eras would have kept their mouths shut act like they are tough. The only good thing about all of that fake toughness is that those of us who know the real deal can get a good belly laugh out of it. Thank you, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, for treating this story exactly the way it deserved to be treated and for providing some great late night entertainment.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:34 AM

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