George would be suspended. He would miss Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks.
As everyone knows, NBA players are prohibited from leaving the bench during an altercation. The punishment is automatic.
But George was not suspended on Friday. And as Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, said in an interview, "It was not even a close call."
If this seems confusing, it’s probably because the rule itself is often misunderstood or outright misportrayed.
There is no rule against stepping over the sideline, or putting a foot into the playing area during a fight. The actual rule, Section VII (c) of the NBA rulebook, is more vague, and subject to some interpretation.
It states: “During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.”
The altercation in this case was a brief scuffle between the Pacers’ George Hill and the Hawks’ Mike Scott, with 19 seconds left in the first half of Thursday’s game. As those two shoved and jawed, George and Rasual Butler each stepped away from the bench and onto the court. George was corralled by an assistant coach before he even reached the three-point line. Butler got slightly over the three-point line before he was pushed back.
In Thorn’s view, neither one violated the rule.
“People just misunderstand (the rule),” Thorn told Bleacher Report. “It’s the 'vicinity of the bench.' It’s not that if your foot is on the line or one step over the line. ... You’ve got to use some common sense, too.”
What constitutes “vicinity of the bench?” That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Some fans and commentators contend George left the bench’s vicinity when he walked onto the court. Thorn said taking a step or two does not constitute leaving the vicinity, or merit a suspension.
“When I looked at this today, I’m thinking, 'What are people talking about?’" Thorn said. He added, “The rule is that you stay in the vicinity of the bench. If a guy takes one step onto the court, you’re not suspending guys for that.”
Butler came a little further out than George, but Thorn said Butler was also within the bounds of the rule.
Others are not convinced—including Thorn’s immediate predecessor, Stu Jackson, who served as the NBA’s punishment czar from 2000 to 2013. (Jackson succeeded Thorn, who previously held the post from 1986 to 2000.)
In a tweet sent out Thursday night, Jackson predicted that Butler would be suspended, but that George would be spared. On Friday he took to Twitter again, this time with a little sarcasm, saying, “the bench vicinity has been expanded.”
The “don’t-leave-the-bench” rule is as controversial as it is misunderstood. New York Knicks fans are still bitter that the league suspended Patrick Ewing and three others for leaving the bench during a game with the Miami Heat in the 1997 playoffs. Phoenix Suns fans are still furious over the suspensions of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who left the bench during a dust-up with the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 playoffs.
The Suns example was immediately cited by fans and commentators when George and Butler left the bench Thursday. But the incidents are not analogous (as Pacers blogger Tim Donahue explains well here, with a YouTube video).
Stoudemire and Diaw ran all the way to midcourt after the Spurs’ Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. Although they did not get involved in the melee, they clearly violated the “vicinity” rule, by about 20 feet.
Jackson suspended both players for one game—a decision that the Suns believe cost them a shot at the title.
As controversial as the league’s decision was, it appears to have had the intended effect: In the seven years since then, only one player has been suspended for leaving the bench: Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers, who not only left the bench, but got embroiled in a fight with the Portland Trail Blazers in March 2009.
Replays of Thursday’s Pacers-Hawks scuffle also appeared to show Scott taking a swing at Hill. Thorn said the two merely pushed each other, and that no suspension was justified for Scott.
As for the theory that the decision on George somehow reflects a sea change—from the rigid, iron-fisted regime of former NBA Commissioner David Stern, to a kinder, gentler Adam Silver administration—Thorn could only chuckle.
“I’m laughing about that,” Thorn said, laughing. “Not in this case. Maybe in some other areas. But not in this case.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.