What’s behind the sudden surge in flagrant 2 fouls during the first week of the NBA playoffs?
Officiating decisions have taken center stage this week, starting with Draymond Green‘s ejection on Monday for a flagrant 2 foul after stomping on Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis resulting in a one-game suspension for Green. The decision left the Golden State Warriors short-handed for Thursday’s Game 3.
Then on Thursday, James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers became the second star sent to the showers early, when he was called for a flagrant 2 for hitting Brooklyn Nets wing Royce O’Neale in the groin with his off hand while dribbling. Earlier, teammate Joel Embiid was called only for a flagrant 1 — which does not result in ejection — when he kicked Nets center Nic Claxton from the ground.
Typically, flagrant 2 fouls are rare. Just 14 of them were called during the entire 2022-23 NBA regular season, or an average of one every 88 games. To have two of them during the first 17 games of the playoffs inevitably stands out by contrast.
Although it’s common for play to get more physical in the postseason, we don’t usually see this many flagrant 2 fouls called in the playoffs. There were three flagrant 2s all of last year’s postseason — one of them committed by Green against the Memphis Grizzlies. And we’ve already matched the total of two flagrant 2s from both the 2020 and 2021 playoffs while surpassing the one called in 2019.
The NBA’s rulebook defines flagrant 1 fouls as contact to an opponent that is “unnecessary,” whereas the more punitive flagrant 2 call requires the contact to be both “unnecessary and excessive.”
Several criteria are offered to distinguish between those categories, or fouls that don’t rise to the level of being flagrant. Referees are asked to consider:
The severity of the contact
Whether or not the player was making a legitimate basketball play
If windup and follow-through accompany the contact
Potential for injury
Severity of injury
Whether the contact led to an altercation
Certainly, neither Green nor Embiid was making a basketball play, making the severity of the contact and injury the primary factors separating how they were called. Sabonis was listed as questionable for Game 3 with a sternum contusion the Kings specifically noted was suffered in the fourth quarter — when the Green stomp occurred — before ultimately playing. Claxton was apparently unharmed by Embiid’s kick.
Although Harden’s flagrant occurred during the midst of ordinary game action, referees evidently determined his hand striking O’Neale below the belt to be a non-basketball play rather than an accidental part of using his off hand to protect the ball.
Asked on TNT’s broadcast of the game whether contact to the groin automatically results in a flagrant 2, NBA senior vice president of referee development Monty McCutchen replied, “No. We have several things we look at. It’s not an automatic [call], because you can have incidental contact there. But when you have significant contact, when you see that it has real impact to the groin, we want to make sure we are protecting players.”
Any possible flagrant foul call is subject to replay review, but unlike other calls that are determined in the NBA replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey, in the cases of flagrant fouls and altercations, the decision is made by the referees on the court with the replay center “playing a supporting role.”
The league office will have the final say on any possible further discipline for Embiid and Harden. It’s worth noting that NBA executive vice president and head of basketball operations Joe Dumars emphasized to ESPN both Green’s track record as a “repeat offender” and his engaging the Sacramento Kings crowd after the play as factors in the decision to suspend him a game. Neither is likely to come into play for Embiid and Harden.
If the 76ers play deep into the playoffs, however, the NBA’s rules on flagrant foul accumulation — which are the same for both regular season and postseason — could come into play. Players are automatically suspended for one game if they reach four total flagrant points, with a flagrant one counting as one point and a flagrant two counting as two points. Barring the call being downgraded after the fact, that already puts Harden — like Green — halfway to suspension.
The last player suspended for flagrant foul accumulation in the playoffs was Green during the 2016 NBA Finals, when his absence for Game 5 helped the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Warriors.