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The NBA Playoffs Are Getting Soft: A Timeline


1981: C. Maxwell vs. D. Dawkins vs. Plaid Blazer

Cedric Maxwell vs. Daryl Dawkins vs. fan in plaid blazer
Game 6, 1981 Eastern Conference Finals
Zero Suspensions, Zero Fouls

We begin in 1981, when players were allowed to police themselves. Maxwell didn’t miss a play, let alone a game, for attacking an innocent old man in the stands. Sure, Dawkins shoved Maxwell into the fan to set off the mob in the first place, but then he makes up for it by playing peacemaker. (See how easy that was, Ron Artest?)

1984: Kevin McHale vs. Kurt Rambis

Kevin McHale vs. Kurt Rambis
Game 4, 1984 Finals
Zero Suspensions, Zero Ejections

That’s what a personal foul looked like in 1984. No flagrants, no ejections, just a simple message-sending clothesline. The Celtics went on to even the series with an overtime win, but all anyone could talk about after the game was how in the world Rambis managed to keep his glasses on the throughout the fracas.

1986: Ralph Sampson vs. Jerry Sichting

Ralph Sampson vs. Jerry Sichting
Game 5, 1986 Finals
Zero Suspensions, 1 Ejection

Dick Stockton tells you all you need to know about this one: “They are still going at it and there is blood.” A Finals fight on national TV with multiple Hall of Famers throwing haymakers and tackling each other only resulted in one ejection. Sampson adds a much-needed touch of class to the events by cursing at Pat O’Brien on live TV after he’s tossed. 

1987: Bill Laimbeer vs. Larry Bird

Bill Laimbeer vs. Larry Bird
Game 3, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
Zero Suspensions, Two Ejections, a whopping $1,200 in Fines (Laimbeer $500, Bird $200, Bill Walton $500)

Larry Bird emerged as the most clutch player in the league around the same time Bill Laimbeer emerged as the best linebacker in the league. Later in the series, Robert Parrish punched Laimbeer in retaliation…and Parrish wasn’t even called for a foul (he was suspended a game). So yeah, nobody likes Bill Laimbeer.

1989-90: Laimbeer vs. Barkley

Laimbeer vs. Barkley
Second to last game of the 1989-90 season.
Three One-Game Suspensions (Laimbeer, Barkley and Hastings); $162,000 in total fines (Laimbeer and Barkley fined $20,000 each, each team fined $50,000)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this wasn’t a playoff game, but it features the NBA’s best wrestlers of the era, so we had to include it. Besides, the Sixers clinched the Atlantic Division with the win, so the stakes were just as high as a playoff game. In the undercard, Isiah Thomas socks Rick Mahorn in the head and gets tossed. Then just before the buzzer, Laimbeer, Mahorn and Charles Barkley help incite a bench-clearing brawl that ends with Barkley trying to climb into the stands. (It was the last time Barkley tried to climb anything.) 

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1994: Jo Jo English vs Derek Harper

Jo Jo English vs. Derek Harper
Game 3, 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Three games of total suspension (Harper two games, English one), $20,000 fines for each player involved

Here’s where the tides start turning. With the world watching one of the league’s most heated rivalries, a brawl spills into the stands and lands right in the commissioner’s lap. At the :44 second mark, you actually see the moment when David Stern decides to turn the playoffs into a no-contact shooting drill.

1998: L. Johnson vs. 'Zo Mourning vs. Van Gundy

Larry Johnson vs. Alonzo Mourning vs. Jeff Van Gundy
Game 4, 1998 Eastern Conference first round
Four games of total suspensions (Two each for LJ and 'Zo), $32,500 in total fines

No amount of fines or suspensions could keep the Knicks and Heat from throwing down. This fight was so wild, it uncombed Jeff Van Gundy’s combover. Van Gundy scratched and clawed his way into sports history after dry-humping Mourning’s leg for the majority of the tussle.  

2007: Robert Horry vs. Steve Nash

Robert Horry vs. Steve Nash
Game 4, 2007 Western Conference Semifinals
Four total games suspended (Horry two, Diaw and Stoudemire one each)

Thanks to the new rules, we are now in the era of bench players drawing suspensions for one wrong step. When Nash’s teammates checked to see if he was OK, two of their best players took a step onto the court. Cue instant suspensions, a Suns series loss and another boring Spurs title run that was far worse for the league than any fight could ever be. 

2009: Eddie House vs Rafer Alston

Eddie House vs. Rafer Alston
Game 2, 2009 Eastern Conference Finals
1 game suspension (Alston)

The transition is complete from closed-fist uppercuts to opened-palm love taps. Rafer didn’t even hit Eddie hard enough to knock off his headband, yet it was hard enough for a one-game suspension.   

2011: Josh McRoberts vs Joakim Noah

Josh McRoberts vs. Joakim Noah
Game 5, 2011 Eastern Conference first round
1 Ejection (McRoberts)

And finally, here we are in today’s NBA, where players can’t even box out anymore without risking ejection.