Isaiah Stewart had a right to be mad. He didn’t have the right to channel it the way he did Sunday night at Little Caesars Arena.
At least not according to Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner, who suspended the Detroit Pistons‘ second-year forward for two games for “escalating and aggressively pursuing” LeBron James after the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar hit him in the face while jostling for position at the free throw line.
Silver suspended James for one game, which seems about right, because while the side of James’ flying fist caught Stewart over his right eye and drew blood, it’s hard to prove intent to harm, though it sure looked like intent to express frustration and possibly intent to send a message.
Either way, the video shows James reaching out (apologetically?) immediately after he realized he’d hit Stewart. The two gathered close to each other — separated by a handful of teammates — and shared words.
If Stewart had walked away at that point, he would have stayed in the game, had the chance to defend Anthony Davis, and would be suiting up tonight at home against the Miami Heat. But he couldn’t turn around.
Whether he tasted his own blood dripping down his face or felt it spreading over his eye and cheeks — or simply felt disrespected in some way — Stewart lost control and chased after James so emphatically he had to be held back three times, most notably by Cade Cunningham, who sprinted after Stewart, grabbed his jersey and corralled him before he could do any damage.
The Pistons’ No. 1 overall pick told reporters after the game he was just trying to keep Stewart from getting into trouble. That’s admirable, even honorable, and that leads us to this question: Exactly what did Stewart plan on doing if he reached James?
It’s unsettling to think about. If he’d been allowed to unfurl the rage he was feeling, he might have ended his career. He also might have ended James’. The look in his eye was that intense. Obviously, Stewart must learn to corral himself.
Here’s guessing he knows that and knew that the moment his adrenaline receded. As his coach, Dwane Casey, told him after Sunday’s loss to the Lakers: Don’t let this define you.
It certainly doesn’t have to. No swings were taken — other than James’. And he didn’t as much as shove the league’s most popular player. At worst, Stewart’s chase will become a meme, though even memes tend to fade over time.
Casey told reporters Sunday night that he didn’t think Stewart deserved any more punishment after he’d been ejected from the game.
“The man got eight stitches,” he said.
It’s hard to blame Casey for protecting his player. But I’d argue those stitches kept Stewart from a longer suspension.
If James’ blow hadn’t cut Stewart’s face, and Stewart eventually reacted in the same way, and had “aggressively” sprinted after James, Silver might have booted him far longer. In a sense, the blood saved him.
Or at least the optics of it did.
Just as the optics of an enraged player knocking over teammates and coaches trying to fight hurt him. Though this wasn’t just optics.
Stewart’s charges were so forceful that he is fortunate he didn’t hurt a coach or a teammate. Something he will likely regret, if he doesn’t already.
Mostly because he plays basketball the way a soldier stands watch: In service of others. In fact, it’s this trait that endeared him to general manager Troy Weaver and to his coaches and teammates. His effort and intensity are meant to secure the ball (mostly) so someone else can take a shot.
When he got ejected after picking up two technical fouls for the way he reacted, his absence hurt his team. So did the long delay as officials sorted out the disruption.
Cunningham later said it was hard to “recenter.” More practically, the Pistons had no one to guard Davis, the Lakers’ gifted big man, and blew a double-digit second-half lead.
Stewart has endeared himself to Pistons fans in the season-plus he’s been here. His energy and toughness are easy to see and admire. He plays the game in a way that looks familiar to longtime Pistons fans.
None of this should change as Stewart gets a few days away from the spotlight and a few moments to consider what led him to snap. Hopefully, he’ll consider how fortunate he was his teammates and coaches stopped him.
Hopefully, he’ll work on some strategies to make sure he’s got a productive place to put all that heat. And hopefully, the night won’t define him.
He is the kind of player that any good team should covet. He’s also the kind of player that good teams need. Though he can’t be that player if he’s not on the court.
Hopefully, Stewart learned that. Here’s betting he did.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.