- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS Yao Ming's initial response to the record fine assessed to his coach was to offer to pay half of it.
If only our first major flap of these playoffs had such a tidy solution.
Turns out that it won't be terribly easy to make Jeff Van Gundy's troubles vanish and that has nothing to do with the 3-2 deficit that suddenly confronts Van Gundy's Houston Rockets in their first-round series against Dallas. Van Gundy is looking at a serious quandary even if the Rockets win the next two games, and even if they win 12 more after that.
For starters, league rules prevent Yao from paying one cent of the $100,000 punishment meted out Monday to Van Gundy. The fine stems from Van Gundy's statements Sunday night that he was recently told by an unnamed referee that playoff refs are "looking harder at Yao" because of complaints to the league office from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Yet far more disconcerting than the amount is the rest of the story.
On top of the six figures that will be subtracted from a future paycheck, when the Rockets' season ends Van Gundy faces further sanctions from the man in charge of the rule book.
NBA commissioner David Stern, coincidentally making a scheduled stop in Dallas on the same day he levied the steepest fine on a coach in league history, made it clear that the docked pay is just "an intermediate step." The league's investigation into Van Gundy's comments will resume as soon as the Rockets' season ends.
"I just want to announce that it's not over," Stern said.
Apprised of the depth of Stern's dismay after the loss, Van Gundy stood by his initial comments by saying: "It is what it is. I'll let everyone evaluate it, what I said. And if it's that bad, I guess it's up to [Stern] and [NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson] to determine. I don't see anything wrong with what I said [Stern] obviously differs."
He doesn't just differ. Stern calls Van Gundy the first NBA "perpetrator" he could remember who did not cooperate with a league investigation, and he likewise put no boundaries on the next round of penalties Van Gundy could face if he doesn't answer the league's questions.
"I don't want to restrict any options that I have," Stern said.
So much for the notion that a Rockets victory or at least Yao getting to the fourth quarter without foul trouble could make Van Gundy's expensive outburst worth it.
Houston wound up getting only half of that recipe anyway. Yao was effective and even forceful in Game 5, throwing down a follow dunk with particular vigor in the final minute of regulation as the Rockets came within another Tracy McGrady triple of forcing overtime. Yao made it to the final buzzer with only four fouls and would have been the Rockets' hero if not for his six misses in 16 attempts at the line, five in the fourth quarter, to spoil a 30-point outburst.
The game details, though, are fairly insignificant in terms of Van Gundy Gate. The mess wouldn't have been worth this much trouble for Van Gundy even if the Rockets had won Monday, especially when you consider that the mess probably wouldn't have been this deep if Van Gundy had simply deleted the mystery ref from his argument.
Knowing Stern as we do, and knowing how livid he is with what he describes as "a new low" in coach manipulation of referees through the media, Yao's boss is likely facing one of three outcomes from here:
Van Gundy reveals the name of the referee who allegedly told him of a league directive to its playoff referees to be stricter when assessing Yao's movements. In that case, Van Gundy would probably avoid further punishment but almost certainly would cost his source his day job as an NBA ref.
Van Gundy tells league officials that he made up the story. If that's what happened, or if that's simply what Van Gundy admits to, bet on him getting hit with a suspension of some severity to start next season. Stern dropped enough hints Monday to suggest that he won't stop at a hefty fine if Van Gundy concocted (or says he concocted) the ref tale to add drama to the argument. This is not the sort of drama Stern likes.
Van Gundy maintains his refusal to tell Stern's investigators anything. He joked before Monday's tip-off that he "felt like I was in Watergate or something" when pressed to reveal his sources, but you can surmise that the penalty stemming from this scenario wouldn't generate much laughter from the Rockets.
In this What Next Series, predictions have been virtually worthless. Dallas' 103-100 triumph in Game 5 marked the first time the home team has won. So we won't attempt to predict which of those three courses Van Gundy is apt to follow.
Here's what we do know for sure:
• All teams complain to the league about the way games are officiated, not just Cuban's Mavs. This happens even more than usual in the playoffs, and the league is fine with it. Stern would much rather receive complaints than read about them in the papers.
• Cuban's chief complaint to the league is that Yao is guilty of moving screens. Screen-setting, moving or otherwise, is not what has saddled Yao with crippling foul trouble in three of the five games so far. So Van Gundy's accusations don't line up with what really bothers him his belief that Yao is "not refereed appropriately." He attributes that in this series to Cuban "calling and calling" the league, but that has actually been a season-long complaint from the Rockets. Van Gundy even said as much before Game 5 when he conceded that his stance does not stem from a couple of playoff games. "This is how I feel," he said.
• Yao was legitimately touched by Van Gundy trying to stand up for him and was sincere when he volunteered to chip in 50 grand. Sincere, too, when Yao said: "Coach did everything he could. Now we've got to do something for him."
Problem is, only Van Gundy can extricate himself now from this spill of Texas crude.
3hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann