Why We Love Physical, Borderline-Dirty Play in the NBA Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2013

DENVER, CO - APRIL 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors walks to the bench against the Denver Nuggets during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the Pepsi Center on April 30, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Warriors 107-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

We love it. Just admit it.

The NBA and general population tend to condemn blatant acts of instant contact, often depicting the most coincidental of physical altercations as lawless acts of virulent rage. Secretly, though—all right, not so secretly—we revel in it.

"There is no place for dirty play in the NBA." That's the party line (or some version of it) that the Association and many fans will stick to.

And you know what? I agree. We all should. But that doesn't mean we have to accept what has become a loose interpretation of "dirty."

Much of what can now be considered sordid is sometimes just a deliberate misconception of physical or, in certain cases, incidental. Once upon a time, you couldn't reach the rim unscathed. When guys like Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason patrolled the paint or floor, hard contact wasn't considered hard at all. It was just contact.

Traces of this style of play are still alive within certain players. Metta World Peace, Kenyon Martin and the entire Chicago Bulls team (to name a few) are no stranger to hard fouls. They, among others, are often castigated for the way they play. 

Why? When did the game become so sensitive to physical play?

I'll admit that there is such a thing as a dirty play. Last year, when World Peace nearly beheaded James Harden, that was too much. When J.R. Smith connected with Jason Terry's jaw, that was also too much.

And if Kenneth Faried had chased Stephen Curry around the court in Game 5 with a sledgehammer in his hand, that too would have been excessive (though I think Bill Laimbeer would have simply called it defense).

We're not proponents (secretly or openly) of actual sleazy basketball. It's just that what is now considered cheap—or in Mark Jackson's case, the equivalent of employing hit men—isn't what it once was...or should be.

Hard-nosed tactics should be both admired and appreciated. They show that players are emotionally invested in the outcome of games; that they value victory to the point where they don't mind using one of their six fouls to prevent an easy basket.

Those are the plays that great rivalries are born out of.

We're not asking the referees to stop blowing their whistles and instead hand players weapons to use as a means of retribution. Fouls are good. They help keep the game in line and give us something to debate. They're necessary.

Does that mean every foul generated from excessive contact is flagrant? Perhaps, but we as the audience are intrigued and excited either way—especially during the playoffs.

Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith was ejected midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 between the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics for throwing an accentuated elbow.

Below, you'll see where J.R. gets the ball. We appear to be destined for some good ol' fashioned one-on-one.

But then Terry decides to crowd Smith, reaching in to make a play on the ball.

Smith clearly thought he was fouled, and he's not one to just sit back and get clowned by a veteran with Larry O'Brien Trophies tattooed across his body. So naturally, Smith ends up slashing his elbow upward in an attempt to get space or draw a foul.

A lot of players do this. Kevin Durant is one who comes to mind.

Except Smith isn't Durant. He drew contact with Terry's face, not his arm, and sent him flying.

To be fair, this did create space. It was also clearly a flagrant foul and was called as such.

So, was it dirty or just physical?

Clearly, it was both. The play began with Terry being physical and Smith being himself. It ended flagrantly, but did that make it any less compelling? Of course not. These are the types of "dirty" plays we can live with. No long-term damage was done, Smith was suspended and a strife was created between two players who play for opposing teams that already abhor each other.

And what about all this Stephen Curry business? What exactly happened that prompted Warriors coach Mark Jackson to make New Orleans Saints-like accusations?

The fellas of Inside the NBA on TNT provided us with a snippet of what Jackson was referencing to.

Below, you'll see Curry preparing to slash through the paint, presumably off to one of the corners in hopes of evading Ty Lawson and knocking down a three.

Once he gets inside the arc, Kenneth Faried gives him a little hip check, foot action or just a plain old trip, whatever you want to call it.

Curry flails forward. Any more contact and he may have (gasp) hit the floor.

The two then exchanged pleasantries.

I'm not a lip reader, but I'm 10 percent certain that Curry was asking Faried what kind of conditioner he uses for that weave of his.  

Curry had the ball just after passing over the time line and was preparing to drive along the strong side. Koufos can be found closing out the space Curry sees, providing help defense as he notices Lawson is about to get picked off.

Upon picking up Curry, Koufos fouled him.

Golden State's point guard continued his strong-side trek after the whistle, as did Koufos.

Curry then attempted a shot that wouldn't count, and Koufos contests it, prompting what can either be construed as a heated debate or an exchange of phone numbers.

The nerve of Koufos, right?

After the game, Mark Jackson was fuming. Not violently, he's too composed for that, but this is when the mythical "hit men" enter our story.

Now, Faried's bump was a foul, and Koufos did foul Curry again after the whistle, but is it really that big of a deal? Of course not. How often does Kevin Garnett do what Faried and Koufos did?

Every player does something that can be construed as "illegal" as some point or the other. JaVale McGee said it best after Game 5 against the Warriors: "If we're dirty, they're unsanitary."

And he's right. Few NBA players could be construed as completely innocent. Everyone crosses the line.

Contact of any kind acts as a catalyst for in-game, postgame and future responses. Tell me you're not more intrigued by this Warriors-Nuggets series now. I dare you. Hell, David West's flagrant foul on Al Horford almost made the Indiana Packers-Atlanta Hawks series worth watching.

To those who maintain these types of occurrences are unethical, tarnish the game or are even criminal, I respectfully disagree. I'd hazard the majority of fans don't share your sentiments either.

There are, in fact, dirty plays. Truly deplorable acts of inhumanity (Malice at the Palace, anyone?) do indeed happen. However, for the most part, physical fouls in the NBA are fascinating and get your adrenaline pumping—especially in the playoffs.

These kinds of plays happen because the players care (maybe too much), not because they're thuggish. These altercations are the result of high emotions and a personal connection to what's transpiring.

They're what we love to watch, discuss and debate about.

They're what physical basketball looks like, what the playoffs look like. 


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