Detroit — For all the attention Sunday’s altercation between the Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart and the Lakers’ LeBron James received, here’s a sobering stat: there were more technical fouls assessed than punches thrown.
There was more theater around what could have happened than what actually did happen. It was more playground dust-up than an actual fight — and it was light years away from a reprise of the “Malice at the Palace” from Nov. 19, 2004, as some were quick to reference in the hours afterward.
The one punch was James hitting Stewart — intentionally or not — and Stewart making several grand gestures to try to get to James to … calmly discuss … his disapproval of the tactic, which appeared to follow an elbow as well.
The NBA on Monday suspended James for one game and Stewart for two games.
The lesson is that it’s all about the optics, and not necessarily the incident itself.
Most of the analysts pointed out that it was James’ first serious offense in his 19-year career and that he doesn’t have a track record for being a cheap-shot artist. The fact is that no one has a track record until his first offense.
James hasn’t been a dirty player, but Sunday’s two-hit combo on Stewart was just that — a cheap shot. It doesn’t mean that James’ status in the league is stained, when for his entire career, he’s been an ambassador for the league and it’s a first offense.
Those are James’ optics.
Stewart doesn’t have quite the same exalted image. He’s in his second season and hasn’t really made a name for himself in the NBA. The part of the incident that was played and replayed on national TV was Stewart running around the court in a heated rage — so much so that he had to be restrained by multiple coaches, teammates and security guards.
That part is warranted, given the severity of the cut above his eye, which required several stitches. It’s easy to say in hindsight — and not reasonable given the situation — but if Stewart had only charged at James once, he probably doesn’t get suspended at all. After all, he was the one who was hit.
It was the optics of him running around the court, seemingly out of control and not even being able to be talked down by coach Dwane Casey, teammates and security that was the most damning for Stewart’s case.
The optics didn’t won’t work in Stewart’s favor. He’s had run-ins with Blake Griffin, in addition to other players — both this season and last season — Stewart is developing a reputation as something of a hothead.
Stewart never threw a punch, but in his rage, he had to — almost unsuccessfully — be restrained by a throng of people. It’s not that it was James who was the target of his rage. Even when Stewart seemed to be calmed down and things were getting under control, he charged again, and then he charged once more on his way out of the arena to the tunnel leading to the locker room.
Pistons guard Cory Joseph helped prevent the situation from potentially becoming more volatile, according to referee Scott Foster, the crew chief on Sunday.
“After Isaiah Stewart left the court, Cory was anticipating (Stewart) may come around the back of house and enter the Laker bench from the opposite side,” Foster said in the pool report. “So, (Joseph) was going to intercept him. I actually told Cory that would be good.”
With the suspensions out of the way, the next question is how things will be handled when the two teams play on Sunday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. After serving his suspension, Stewart will be able to play Friday against the Clippers before the rematch with the Lakers.
One school of thought was that the NBA would levy a longer suspension to prevent Stewart or James from playing, thus passively de-escalating the situation.
Not so much.
Instead, it looks like all parties will have to figure out a way to handle things diplomatically. James reportedly reached out late Sunday to try to get in contact with Stewart to let him know that there wasn’t any ill intent in his actions.
The two probably will have a conversation in the coming days and smooth things over. It’s not like Sunday’s game could be any more awkward, but it will have a few more eyeballs on it — from the league and from fans around the country — to see how things turn out.
There won’t be a second helping of ill will, and the NBA will make sure of that.
It’s all about the optics.
Heat at Pistons
► Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Pistons (4-12) are coming off an emotional loss to the Lakers on Sunday and the Heat (11-6) have won four of their last five games behind All-Stars Jimmy Butler (25.1 points) and Kyle Lowry (12 points, 7.6 assists).