A few years ago, Temple University basketball Coach John Chaney sent one of his deepest bench players into a game for the sole purpose of incapacitating an opponent’s best player.

The poor scrub dutifully did as he was told, and then sat our the length of his ensuing suspension, while the opponent’s star was lost for considerably longer, essentially ending any hope his team had for a season of success. It was a horrible piece of calculated gamesmanship that paid off perfectly – in the short run, Temple won the game. But in the long run, all of basketball lost.

For the record, I don’t believe for a second that the Spurs’ Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table at the end of Game 4 with the intention of hurting the Suns’ star, and I don’t believe he did it with the intention of luring two of the Suns’ best players off their bench and into debilitating suspensions at the most crucial stage of a playoff series. Nor do I think Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, or any member of his staff, encouraged or ordered Horry to deliver an unnecessarily hard foul to any Suns player with the intention of doing that player harm or seeing opponents suspended.

I think what happened was this: Robert Horry blew his cool. Simple as that. Frustrated by the Spurs’ collapse in a game they had largely dominated, upset at seeing the home court advantage they had fought to steal be stolen from them, he made a mistake and unloaded on Steve Nash. I didn’t see any post-game quotes from Horry, but I bet he’d say much the same thing. And I bet Popovich either read Horry the riot act after the game before the press entered the locker room, or he knew that, since Horry has been in the league since prior to the invention of the shot clock, that he didn’t have to, because Horry knew exactly how badly he had screwed up.

The players of the NBA, while they may not always get along as individuals, are a fraternity. No one wants to see anyone else’s health damaged or career threatened. And the Spurs are a class organization. They don’t make any more “dirty” plays, intentional or not, than any other team in the league. They don’t need to resort to dirty tricks to win games or championships. They’ve proven that in the past. They’re simply a hard-nosed team that plays a very physical brand of basketball, and has a lot of success doing it. Obviously, they’re the villains of this piece to every Suns fan, but trust me, dirty play is not part of their institutional culture.

Still, the unintentional result of the incident is that the Spurs are left without a valuable role player for two games, while the Suns are left without their leading scorer, and one of their top two reserves. Based on that, even though Horry’s action was not premeditated, it works out to be a brilliant bit of gamesmanship that essentially neutralizes the Suns’ regained home court advantage. It’s a trade that definitely works in the Spurs’ favor, and any protests to the contrary, they have to be pretty happy about it. I know if it happened the other way, I’d certainly be glad to come out ahead – though I’d keep it to myself.

Boris Diaw and Amaré Stoudemire, seeing their teammate and leader take a cheap shot, left the immediate vicinity of the bench to come to his aid. That’s a fact. Doing so was a clear violation of NBA rules. That’s a fact. The penalty for violating that rule is a mandatory suspension of at least one game. That’s a fact. In terms of the letter of the NBA law, Boris, Amaré and the Suns received just punishment. It doesn’t matter that Amaré stepped out barely onto the court simply to get around other players. It doesn’t matter that neither player made it as far as half-court because of the heroic restraining action of the Suns’ assistant coaches. It doesn’t matter that, as others have been saying, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen may have stepped onto the court in the second quarter of the same game when it looked like another altercation might take place (I didn’t see that play, so I can’t comment). It doesn’t matter what went before in the series’ physical play. In this case, the NBA got it right, according to the letter of their law.

Now, that letter of the law can (and probably should, and probably will) be debated – in the off-season. It’s an ironclad rule with no room for flexibility, and maybe there should be some flexibility built into it for future seasons. But now, in the middle of a playoff series, isn’t the time to rewrite a rule, however inappropriate to a situation it may be. I don’t believe Stoudemire and Diaw deserve their sentences, based on what they did when the incident occurred. I think most people who saw the play, maybe even some of them in San Antonio, would feel the same way.

Doesn’t matter. The rule is the rule.

And the truth, however unpalatable to Suns fans, is that Amaré and Boris should’ve known better. Their reaction to seeing Steve Nash laid out was one hundred percent human and absolutely natural. I have no doubt that, in the same situation, I’d have been hard-pressed to remain in my seat and resist the urge to rush to my teammate’s aid. But however hard it would have been, they should have resisted. They’re young guys, and this is a terrible way to learn a hard lesson. But they’ve learned it. Time to move on and look to Game 5.

Can the Suns win Game 5 without Diaw and Stoudemire? Of course they can. Will it be easy? Of course not. But they’ll be fired up beyond belief, and so will the crowd. And this is why teams have benches, and the Suns have a bench filled with playoff-tested veterans. While they may not have played much this season, they know what to do and what is expected of them. Someone will need to step up, shake off the rust, and justify the organization’s trust in them, whether it’s Jalen Rose, James Jones, Pat Burke, or someone else. It can definitely happen, and hopefully it will.

If the Suns lose, and go on to lose the series, it’ll be pretty obvious that the suspensions will have played a role in the ultimate outcome of the match-up. But that doesn’t mean Suns fans will be justified in griping, or that the playoff series should be assigned an asterisk in the record books. It’s all part of the game, at the moment, and maybe the NBA will address the situation after the playoffs are over, maybe they won’t.

It stinks, but it’s life. And in this case, the Suns simply came out on the short end of the stick.

If anything, I’m grateful Steve Nash didn’t break his arm when Robert Horry checked him into the scorer’s table Monday night. Or rupture tendons in his knees that might have finished his playing career. Because, if the same situation had resulted, the Suns would have lost three players to the Spurs’ one, one of them (a two-time MVP) forever, again with no legal recourse as the NBA handed out its justice, however undeserved.

It’s hard to say the Suns got lucky in this case, but at the moment, the Suns’ fans have to take their good luck where they can find it.

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