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Bernstein: Refs Got It Wrong In Cleveland

By Dan Bernstein-- senior columnist

(CBS) Is Roger Goodell in charge of NBA discipline, too?

Seeing the capriciousness and whim of the penalties doled out after the fracas between the Bulls and Cavaliers on Tuesday night, it would appear that the NFL's lord of overreaction was imposing similarly unfair justice on the players involved there.

If all they had was the real-time chaos to view before ruling, I'd get it, but Joey Crawford and his crew had all the same TV replays we had – all the angles from the start of the sequence to the end of the scrum. And their conclusions were curious, at best.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Bulls forward Taj Gibson set a hard, legal screen on Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova. On the ensuing basket by Aaron Brooks, Dellavedova boxed Gibson out legally, and the two players fell to the floor as the ball went through the hoop. With their legs then entangled, Dellavedova escalated the interaction by leg-locking Gibson's ankle. Gibson kicked himself free – reactively and suddenly to be sure – and then teammates zoomed in, with Brooks giving J.R. Smith enough of a two-handed shove to knock the much larger player off balance.

Common sense and a working knowledge of NBA precedent should inform the decisions enough in this case that the fair outcome would be double technicals – one for Gibson and one for Dellavedova – and a separate examination of Brooks body-checking Smith. Brooks could have been assessed a technical himself for joining the fray as he did, something the league has taken seriously in the past and particularly after the Pacers/Pistons brawl of 2004.

What actually happened, however, was that Gibson was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and ejected, while Dellavedova calmly sank the two free throws awarded and Brooks' action went unpunished. This came even after a long look at multiple video aspects, in slow motion.

The NBA rulebook defines grounds for flagrant 2 as "unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent," which is a real reach for application to Gibson's instinctive effort to kick free of a deliberate scissor-lock strong enough that Dellavedova was first lifted off the ground by Gibson's extrication. Even flagrant 1 ("unnecessary contact" but short of "excessive") would be questionable, and there was certainly enough clear evidence that Dellavedova also acted aggressively, if sneakily so.

Calls in Cleveland for Gibson's suspension are flatly ridiculous, but the league should be reviewing all of this today and making some of the administrative changes that are perfectly within its power. Gibson's foul should be downgraded to a flagrant 1 at least, if not to a common technical. If he gets the one disciplinary playoff "point" on his record that comes with it, then so does Dellavedova. Meanwhile, Brooks should face consequences for what he did to Smith secondarily, since it was itself a potential catalyst for something worse.

NBA referees have a difficult job in following the action of 10 giant men moving as quickly as they do, and flash-fire incidents like that one last night are all but impossible to sort out if relying only on one's eyes as it happens. But with the benefit of hindsight afforded by replay, there are no excuses for such errors in judgment, especially from veteran officials.

Any difference Gibson would have made in the outcome is entirely debatable, but the fact that the refs messed up is not.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score's "Boers and Bernstein Show" in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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