Dirk Nowitzki and Kendrick Perkins scuffled early in Game 2 of the Mavericks-Thunder series Tuesday night, sparked in part by the Thunder center’s shoving his forearm into Nowitzki’s lower back while fighting for position under the rim. The two had been jostling before that, and Serge Ibaka also clipped Nowitzki in the face while challenging a Dirk jumper — an unfortunate thing that happens now and then when defenders try to face-guard shooters.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle shouted at Perkins during the incident and was upset in his typically even-handed way after the game:
“It’s playoff basketball. It’s physical,” Carlisle said when asked about the confrontation. “I mean, we don’t like the cheap shots when they give them, and they don’t like them if we give them. That’s the nature of competition.
“Hey, I love hard play, clean, competitive playoff series. You throw the ball up and may the best team win, but the dirty bulls— has got to stop. We don’t want anybody getting hurt out there either way.”
I don’t know what precisely Carlisle is referring to when he talks about “dirty” play. The word dirty brings to mind cheap shots with the potential to cause harm. Does a very large man shoving his forearm into another very large man’s back qualify? What about some raised elbows?
But dirty could also refer to more subtle rule-breaking, the kind Perkins mastered at the feet of Kevin Garnett in Boston. Folks around the league — mostly outside of Boston — have long complained about Garnett’s occasional moving screens and the extra contact he’s allowed to make when defending the pick-and-roll. Watch Garnett jump out on guards during pick-and-roll plays, and you’ll often see him place both hands on a ball-handler’s hip for just an instant. It’s not a particularly aggressive move — not a shove — but it often has enough of an impact to take that ball-handler wider than he’d otherwise like to go in trying to turn the corner. Garnett has other little tricks, scouts and coaches say, but that’s the main one I notice regularly.
Those who lionize the wily refer to this as “veteran know-how,” or as Garnett and his ilk “learning all those little veteran tricks.” Those who know the rulebook refer to them as “fouls” and “illegal screens.” Perkins has perfected this art of subtle and not-so-subtle rule-breaking on both ends of the floor. This play from the 3:45 mark of the first quarter Tuesday might not qualify as dirty, but it’s absolutely a foul, an obvious one, and it had the potential to affect the score:
Poor Ian Mahinmi is creeping up to defend what he thinks will be a Perkins/Russell Westbrook pick-and-roll, only Perkins has other plans. He blatantly shoves Mahinmi, with both hands, taking him well above Westbrook and creating a driving lane that didn’t otherwise exist. Westbrook blows the wide-open layup, but had he made it, Perkins would have created two points out of thin air in a game that came down to the final possession. Little things like this matter, and they explain why Perkins is one of those polarizing players hated by opponents and beloved by teammates.
In a game that took forever because of excessive fouling, it’s shocking that the officials missed this. Or perhaps it’s not that shocking; Mahinmi doesn’t have the ball, he’s not a star player going up for a shot or driving through an illegal hand-check, and Perkins carries a reputation as a trickster on defense. This is not to say officials give Perkins unique leeway in general; he’s among the league leaders in technicals every season. But those technical stem from obvious misbehavior and boorish shouting. This is subtler, but no less important. Blow the whistle on it.