Commentary

Elbow rule might weaken title defense

Magic go up 2-1, while Celtics center Kendrick Perkins faces possible suspension

Originally Published: May 8, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- The French word for throat is "gorge."

And the "gorge" was where Celtics center Kendrick Perkins' elbow struck Frenchman Mickael Pietrus' throat early in the fourth quarter of Boston's humbling 117-96 defeat Friday night in Orlando, which dropped the Celtics into a 2-1 deficit against the Magic in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

That play brings us back to one of the topics that has been a major theme of the 2008-09 postseason: the elbow rule. And what we've learned is if you strike an opposing player above the shoulders with a malicious elbow, you're getting a one-game suspension.

[+] EnlargeKendrick Perkins
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackPerkins' physical style might give the Celtics a hole in the middle in Game 4.

Magic center Dwight Howard knows that rule now, because it's what kept him out of Game 6 of the first round. Kobe Bryant knows it, too, because the only reason he was playing in Friday's Lakers-Rockets game was because his flagrant elbow against Ron Artest struck Artest in the top of the chest, missing his neck by inches.

"Certainly, in this case had he made contact in the head area, we'd be evaluating it on a different level," said NBA vice president of operations Stu Jackson of the Bryant elbow on Thursday. And in the rulebook as well as in practice, "the head area" is everything above shoulder level.

So if Stu sticks with his own precedents, it's going to be bad news for a Boston front line already undermanned and undersized, because Perkins, the C's starting center, is going to be watching Sunday's Game 4 from somewhere other than the Amway Arena.

"I was just trying to fight through a screen," said Perkins, using the same plea as Derek Fisher before the NBA suspended him for his malicious blow in the Rockets-Lakers series.

Perkins continued, "It wasn't like I was trying to hurt him or elbow him in his mouth or nothing like that. I was just trying to fight through the screen and ended up hitting him."

The play was ruled a flagrant foul 1 at the time, and Perkins stayed in the game. One member of the Celtics complained privately that what got Perkins riled up was being pulled to the floor by Dwight Howard on the previous possession without a foul being called, with referee Scott Foster gesturing at Perkins to get off the floor and get downcourt.

If he is forced to miss Game 4, the Celtics -- already without front-line stalwarts Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe -- would be forced to start either Brian Scalabrine or Mikki Moore on the front line, or perhaps move Glen Davis over to center and go with a smaller starting lineup featuring three guards.

Either way, they would be smaller, and that would not be a good thing against an Orlando team that figured out in the first half of Game 3 that it could attack the basket instead of relying primarily on the 3-point shot. The Magic didn't make a 3 until J.J. Redick buried one with 4:51 remaining in the second quarter after scoring 20 of their 22 first-quarter points in the paint.

A lead that grew as high as 20 in the third quarter was down to seven less than 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, but Boston got no closer the rest of the way, the beginning of the end coming on Perkins' flagrant foul. Pietrus made one of two free throws, and Rashard Lewis made a pair from the line after Orlando kept possession on the flagrant foul. From there, the lead stayed in double digits the rest of the way.

Lewis finished with a team-high 28 points, Hedo Turkoglu added 24 points, and Howard had 17 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. Anthony Johnson filled in well for suspended starter Rafer Alston, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the first half, starting with a dunk early in the first quarter.

"I dunked over Theo Ratliff in the first round, so I still have some hops in these old legs," Johnson said, adding that he never tries to dunk over Howard or Marcin Gortat in practice. Needless to say, one can come into contact with an elbow trying to do such things in practice.

And in this postseason, "elbow" has become a dirty, loaded word.

"I'm trying to keep my elbows down," Howard said. "I call it the people's elbow; I'm going to keep it down."

As for Pietrus, he wasn't angry, but he wasn't taking Perkins off the hook either.

"I was just trying to set a regular pick," Pietrus said. "I didn't even try to set it hard. I just came in and then, boom. I was surprised, but that's what he does -- physicality. I'm glad the referees seen it and caught it."

Jackson is going to catch it again on DVD, too, as he spends his Saturday the same way he spent his Thursday -- reviewing a flagrant foul.

And chances are there will be a gorge (excuse my non-French use of that word) in the middle where Perkins usually stands when Game 4 tips off Sunday.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.