Unwritten Rules of the Hardwood


With all the hoopla surrounding opening day, it seems improbable that the clubhouse leader for most prominent early-season unwritten rules story is coming not from a baseball diamond, but out of the NBA. It pertains to what should be done with the ball with time running out while holding a big lead.

On Sunday, Golden State’s JaVale McGee launched a 3-pointer in the final seconds of a game in which his team led Washington 137-115. The guy guarding him, Brandon Jennings, was so upset that he earned a flagrant foul for shoving McGee to the ground before the player landed.

“It’s just a rule—I learned it when I first came into the league not to do that,” Jennings said in an NBC report. “You’re already up 20 almost, and then for him to do it, it was like, ‘All right, come on. Chill out. Now you’re trying to embarrass us.’ ”

Jennings called the move “disrespectful,” and labeled himself “old-school.”

The Warriors’ response: there were 4.8 seconds left on the shot clock, but 6.9 seconds left on the game clock. “What’s JaVale supposed to do? Let the clock run out and get a turnover?” wondered Klay Thompson. “It’s basketball.” At the very least, the shot for which McGee opted was decidedly low-percentage.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr did admit that while he had no problem shooting in that situation—“I never understood why a team would be offended if there is a shot-clock deferential,” he said in an ESPN report—he’d rather not see a three-pointer be the shot of choice. “I guess [the 3-pointer is] what Jennings was upset about,” he said in an ESPN report. “I was uncomfortable with the way it ended.”

(To be fair, Jennings was also upset that Kerr left Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in the game until the end, regardless of the blowout. Green was chasing a triple-double, and Kerr may have wanted to make a statement to his team following the Warriors’ loss to Washington in February. Kerr did apologize to Wizards coach Scott Brooks.)

(Also to be fair, the Wizards have taken three such shots this season themselves.)

Yesterday the Pacers did the same thing, only with no shot-clock differential. With 10 seconds remaining against Toronto and holding a 15-point lead, Lance Stephenson jogged down the court and made an uncontested layup. The difference between this and McGee’s shot: there would have been no statistical repercussions had Stephenson chosen to hold on to it.

Once time expired, various Raptors had to be restrained from going after Stephenson.

The distinction between the two plays—an expiring shot clock—was clear. It’s a direct-line explanation that directly impacts a team’s stat line. In baseball blowouts, teams don’t stop trying to score, they just stop trying to score aggressively. Runners advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Things like stolen bases and sacrifice bunts are curtailed. And though quibbles can be lodged over McGee’s choice of court spacing, even that is up for debate. Another thing Jennings said was, “Thank God he didn’t go to the rack. It probably would have been worse for him.” So who the hell knows?

Stephenson, on the other hand, had no reason to shoot. He wasn’t being defended. The game would have ended before the shot clock did. This is akin to a runner at first base, who’s not being held close in the late innings of a blowout, strolling into second simply because he can. MLB has a rule about this type of thing: It’s not outlawed, but neither is it rewarded. Defensive indifference is called and the runner is not credited with a steal. (Stephenson issued his own apology after the game.)

However one interprets them, these things do show us how universal these rules can be across sports. Both the Wizards and Raptors felt disrespected, and were reliant on a code—in whatever form that took or should have taken—to keep things in check. It all has a very familiar ring.

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