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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Fouls OK; penalties are too hard

MIAMI -- When Jerry Stackhouse leveled Shaquille O'Neal with a hard foul with 6:29 left in the third quarter of Miami's Game 4 win in the NBA Finals Thursday night, the Heat players turned to each other and nodded.

``We knew he'd get suspended," said Miami forward James Posey.

``It was academic based on precedent," Heat coach Pat Riley added. ``All you have to do is look at the James Posey hit [on Kirk Hinrich] in Chicago, which was, I thought, less than what Jerry's was. But that's precedent.

``I think probably immediately after the hit [the Mavericks] knew what was going to happen. They shouldn't complain about that at all or be upset by that at all because that's just the way that one is."

You will have to forgive Dallas coach Avery Johnson if he doesn't quite see it that way.

Johnson was agitated yesterday over the fact that his team has absorbed its third suspension of this postseason, and Friday night on his radio program he accused the referees of giving O'Neal preferential treatment. Yesterday he was uncharacteristically edgy and defensive regarding the latest turn of events, which will leave him without one of his most potent weapons off the bench in tonight's Game 5.

``Everyone is so amazed that I disagree with the decision," Johnson said. ``What am I supposed to do, go out and have a parade, and a party? Because the league comes down with a certain ruling, what are we supposed to do as coaches? Say `Amen'?

``I disagree with the ruling. I don't think it's consistent with what we've seen in the playoffs."

It's easy to sympathize with Johnson. Stackhouse did what his coaches wanted him to do -- he made sure Shaq didn't have a clear or easy path to the basket. There didn't appear to me to be any malice on the play, and even O'Neal dismissed the hit as inconsequential.

But Johnson is incorrect about the perceived lack of consistency. In truth, the league has been consistent in handing out the suspensions; the problem is, it has consistently overreacted in meting them out.

In commissioner David Stern's concerted effort to polish his game to a blinding sheen, he has forgotten that contact is an integral part of the game.

Once upon a time, making a player think twice about venturing into the paint was good basketball. Back in the '80s, and even the '90s, for that matter, Stackhouse's hit would have been business as usual.

We can only guess what would happen to Kevin McHale today for clotheslining Kurt Rambis (in the 1984 Finals), or Robert Parish for leveling Bill Laimbeer (in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals). They likely would be suspended into the next season. And just think about how hard Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing banged each other in the 1994 Finals. That style of play is no longer welcome.

``It's a joke," said Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

He's not the only one who thinks so. You know something's up when even the team that benefits from the suspension concurs.

``It was just a hard foul, that's all," Shaq said. ``Felt good, actually, the next morning when I woke up. Now I don't have to see my chiropractor. [Stackhouse] saved me $50."

``Shaq and I laughed about that play," Miami's Alonzo Mourning said. ``You know things are different when Udonis [Haslem] gets suspended for throwing his mouthpiece in the vicinity of a referee, not even at him.

``That foul Stackhouse laid on Shaq used to be part of the game. That was something we used to prepare for each and every night. But the league wants a better image. They want the physicality out of the game. They want to create an image they think will be more attractive to the world."

That image is a work in progress, and its casualties in this postseason have included Stackhouse, Posey, and Phoenix's Raja Bell, to name a few key players.

They have suffered at the hands of NBA officials who set a low bar of tolerance in the playoffs, beginning with the suspension of Sacramento bad boy Ron Artest in the first round against San Antonio for leveling a forearm at Manu Ginobili. Artest's actions warranted a flagrant foul, but the decision to suspend him was borderline at best. Artest, who incited the near-riot at The Palace of Auburn Hills two seasons ago by going into the stands after a fan, receives no leeway, and his past very likely hurt him when his punishment was delivered.

The unfortunate fallout for the rest of the teams was Artest's suspension became the standard by which all other incidents were measured.

As a result, hard fouls no longer have a place in these Finals. Be physical if you like, but do it at your own peril. It simply does not jibe with the up-tempo, spread-the-floor, shoot-the-J atmosphere the NBA is working so hard to create. Is that kind of basketball more fun to watch? Sure, but there always should be a place for establishing territory in the paint.

``You have to accept it, but I'm finding it difficult to adjust," Mourning said. ``Being physical was something I relied on. Being physical was a big part of my game, and it was a big part of Shaq's game. Your mind and your body is so prone to play a certain way that now we have to totally flip that switch off, and it's not easy.

``Shaq has adjusted pretty well. I remember watching him play Philly in the [2001] Finals [with the Lakers] and him just punishing Dikembe [Mutombo]. If the rules were like they are now, he would have fouled out of all those games."

Johnson already has wondered aloud why Shaq doesn't get called for more fouls -- and why the big fella hasn't been suspended for some of his actions, like the elbow to Nowitzki in Game 4, and the hit to Stackhouse's face in Game 1.

``Really and truly, I never want to cry about [it], and I don't like using other players' names," Johnson said. ``My point is this: You guys go back and look at the first play of the game. Their player, Player A [O'Neal] came over and just pounded Dirk. I wasn't crying about a flagrant foul. It was an elbow to Dirk's head. We weren't crying about a flagrant foul, because we don't complain about flagrant fouls.

``But we make the same attempt, and then my player gets suspended. So now because I'm supposed to be a religious man, I'm supposed to come in here and have a prayer meeting."

It's a shame Stackhouse will not play tonight -- for everybody, not just the Dallas fans. The goal of the NBA should be to monitor its players, not impose its will upon them. Its stringent interpretation of a hard foul has hurt the game.

``We teach hard fouls," Johnson said. ``We do not teach flagrant fouls. We teach hard, clean fouls. That's a big part of our game. Now, have I seen it from my team as much as I want to? No, but when we attempt to make a play on an individual and then our player gets suspended, that's pretty disappointing."

The most disappointing part is it will happen again. And again. Good thing Parish and McHale are retired.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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