It was the cheap shot heard 'round the world. Late in the second quarter of the Lakers-Thunder thriller Sunday, Metta World Peace threw down a gorgeous flush on Serge Ibaka.
On his way back on defense, he began to pound his chest in celebration when James Harden pressed his forearms against World Peace's left side, at which point World Peace swung his left arm and struck Harden on the side of the head violently with his elbow.
World Peace continued down the court celebrating until he noticed that play had been stopped.
Harden suffered a concussion and will not see the court until he is cleared by neurologists. World Peace offered his apologies following the game and stated that his actions were unintentional.
Further review of the tape by ESPN's Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy seemed to provide evidence that World Peace's actions were, in fact, intentional. But to what extent did World Peace intend harm? Were his actions irresponsible or expressly malicious?
Were World Peace's actions deserving of a suspension? Were they in fact, so heinous, as to undo his metamorphosis into a quirky, lovable, psychiatrist-thanking, Michael Jackson-loving, championship-ring-for-charity-pawning, dodgeball-playing member of the Lakers? Well, yes to the first and no to the second.
In light of what will surely be a media cavalcade trampling upon the reputation and character of a certain soon-to-be re-christened Ron Artest in the following days, allow me to present the possibility of certain mitigating circumstances.
I. He Wasn't Aiming for the Head
The fact that World Peace stated his elbow was unintentional is mired in a complicated half-truth. Anyone who saw the video could conclude with reasonable certainty that World Peace intended to strike Harden.
Unfortunately, it is less clear whether World Peace intended to strike Harden's head so as to inflict any lasting harm.
It appears World Peace intended to strike Harden on the shoulder, chest, or back and "push off" towards the defensive end, which would explain his nonchalance in running towards the other end.
No conscientious human being would strike another person's head with that much force with intent and feign ignorance. This begs the question "Why would Artest do such a thing, anyway?"
II. World Peace Reacted Poorly to Provocation
What isn't mentioned as a mitigating circumstance (and usually isn't acceptable to any but the most intimate of basketball fans) is the amount of trash-talking which occurs in these games.
If you've ever been to an NBA game live and sat close enough to hear the players (or if you've ever wondered why your broadcast games seem to lose sound for two-to-three second chunks), the repartee between players isn't exactly ripped out of an Oscar Wilde comedy.
Wives, girlfriends, mothers, children, age, cultural background, are all fair game and are often-trod subjects of players attempting to get underneath each other's skin. Every once in a while, these players succeed in doing so.
During Game 4 the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals, the Mavericks' 6'0", 180-pound guard J.J. Barea was mid-air for a layup when the Lakers' 7-footer Andrew Bynum leveled him with a jumping elbow to the rib cage.
Barea, who two games earlier was clotheslined by a frustrated World Peace (then Artest), had a penchant for trash talking and getting under opposing players' skin.
While the players are responsible for their own actions (and Bynum and Artest were not exactly paragons of maturity), incidents such as these speak volumes about the aggressive nature of competition in basketball and its possible ramifications.
While immensely popular amongst his teammates, James Harden seems to have similarly drawn the ire of opposing teams. In more than one instance, Harden appears to be jawing back and forth with members of the Lakers, including one particularly lengthy exchange with Kobe Bryant in the Thunder's meeting with the Lakers in February.
In the replay video, it is evident World Peace is attempting to celebrate when Harden comes in and lodges his left arm into World Peace's side and proceeds to "knock" on World Peace's back with his right hand. In the video replay, World Peace looks visibly irritated at the contact; the elbow shot appears to be in retaliation.
III. World Peace Has Come a Long Way from the Malice at the Palace
This is sure to be a public relations disaster for World Peace who, in years since the infamous brawl at the Auburn Palace in 2004, has sought to deal with his anger in positive ways.
World Peace has raised literally millions of dollars for mental-health advocacy groups, including the well-publicized auction of his 2010 NBA Championship ring in support of the cause.
For the 2010-2011 NBA season, World Peace won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for excellence in humanitarian service.
The Ron Artest who threw the elbow on Sunday is simply not the Ron Artest who went into the stands at Auburn Hills almost eight years ago; to use his track record for emotional volatility in consideration for his punishment or in shaping a perception of him would be a disservice to how far he has come in that very regard.
Prior to this unfortunate incident, World Peace had been on a tear in the past 12 games. Averaging 14 points and close to 4 rebounds a game and in phenomenal basketball shape, the Lakers are sure to miss his offensive production and defensive tenacity.
The NBA is expected to make a ruling on World Peace's punishment soon; one can only hope that if and when World Peace returns, the next shot from him to receive this much press would involve a ball and a hoop.