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Spit Takes: There Were No Winners in the Lakers-Rockets Spat

Suspensions were handed out to Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, and Chris Paul for their roles in Saturday’s ruckus at Staples Center. The penalties were modest, but their absences could do more damage than it seems.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

A prize fight had given way to a crime scene by the time Mike D’Antoni emerged from the same visiting locker room Sunday evening that he did less than 24 hours before. Saturday night, D’Antoni stood amid a crush of reporters and was asked to make sense of the fistfight that sullied LeBron James’s Staples Center debut as the Lakers’ starting small forward. Now, with a hangover permeating the arena, only handful of media members circled the Houston Rockets coach seeking clarity to the fallout.

The NBA doled out its punishments for the spittle heard ’round the world about two hours before tipoff between the Clippers and Rockets: Brandon Ingram was suspended four games, Rajon Rondo three games, and Chris Paul two games. D’Antoni, as he did the night before, quipped his way through the fray.

“I’m just glad they didn’t suspend Boris Diaw again,” he said.

Overall, D’Antoni thought the the league’s verdict was not “equitable.” Paul had poked back after being provoked by Rondo’s saliva, and Ingram, by throwing himself and a haymaker into the scrum, exacerbated the incident.

“I don’t know what they expect him to do,” D’Antoni said. “If you want to suspend him one [game], I get it. Just to make a statement. If you talk monetarily, he’s paying three times more than the other guys are paying for missing games. It doesn’t seem to be right.”

The league issued the following explanation for its verdict:

Ingram has been suspended for aggressively returning to and escalating the altercation and throwing a punch in the direction of Paul, confronting a game official in a hostile manner, and instigating the overall incident by shoving Rockets guard James Harden. Rondo has been suspended for instigating a physical altercation with, and spitting and throwing multiple punches at, Paul. Paul has been suspended for poking at and making contact with the face of Rondo, and throwing multiple punches at him.

The intervening hours before the decision saw the site of LeBron’s L.A. coronation devolve into the NBA’s own grassy knoll. Immediately following Saturday’s 124-115 Houston win, the Rockets claimed that Rondo instigated Paul’s aggressive finger-pointing by spitting at the Rockets point guard. The Lakers, however, denied the spit; it was a phantom spitter. Some argued that the inciting liquid was misidentified—perhaps sweat from Rondo’s brow splashed upon Paul amid the fracas, or maybe even moisture involuntarily sprayed from the Lakers guard’s mouth as he argued his position. Then came the Zapruder film (in crystal clear HD, courtesy of The Athletic’s Sam Amick):

If there was any doubt that the NBA is becoming more theater than game, look no further than this video. The bullet of spit literally sends Paul’s head back and to the right.

Despite the mounting evidence against him, Rondo apparently maintained there was no intent behind the spittle. Kiki VanDeWeghe, effectively the NBA’s ranking judge on possible suspensions, wasn’t buying it.

Buried underneath all the phlegm are two teams that proved on Saturday that they can’t afford major losses for extended periods. The Rockets spackled the holes on the wing left by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with low-risk flyers in the chalk outline of Daryl Morey players, but none so far have provided much reprieve to the existing core. Carmelo Anthony was active on the boards Saturday (although most of his nine rebounds were uncontested) and shot 3-for-10 from the floor, including 1-for-7 from 3. James Ennis III was also off the mark (2-for-7), and Michael Carter-Williams lasted just two minutes before getting pulled. Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight, both acquired via trade this summer, have yet to suit up. Eric Gordon will slide into Paul’s spot on the first unit, which means shortening the rotation to seven players in late October or giving MCW as many minutes as he can handle as he works through a playing time limit; the result may be the same in both cases.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have made good on their preseason declaration to run, ranking first in the league in pace through the season’s first five days with a 33-year-old LeBron James in the driver seat. Capable bodies are needed, yet they’ve already been hard to come by at full strength. The Lakers are very much in search mode to start the season. Not having two of their steadiest hands in Rondo and Ingram could, perhaps, lead to some necessary invention—Lonzo Ball (four made 3s on Saturday) could supplant Rondo as the starting point guard; Svi Mykhailiuk could become the Kyle Korver proxy that the worst 3-point-shooting team in the league needs; a Michael Beasley dice roll could produce another rotation player. But even the glass-half-full perspective means more growing pains, which means more losses. With mostly Western Conference playoff hopefuls on the forthcoming schedule, the Lakers could find themselves 2-6 before the first of November.

Two games separated the West’s 3- and 8-seed last season, and the competition to make the field will be even thicker this season. A bad start doesn’t seal a team’s fate; look no further than last season’s Jazz, which started 16-24 before eventually ripping off a 29-6 finish. But it does matter more than you think: On November 1 of last year, 11 of the 16 eventual playoff teams were among their conference’s top eight. It’s not too far of a stretch to suggest that Rondo’s spittle could cost LeBron more than a happy home opener.

But James, despite his best efforts to play peacemaker, isn’t alone in the loser column. There’s an obvious point to be made here about unnecessary violence smearing one of the league’s marquee nights at a time when the NBA is positioning itself as the sports fan’s shoulder angel to the NFL’s devil. I’m not sure fans actually care about that, though; that’s more of a league problem. One night later, all I feel is an upset stomach. Watching two of sports’ most cantankerous personalities throw blows was thrilling in the moment, but the replays of the incident—one person spitting on another; the other responding by shoving a finger in a face—are pretty grim. Doc Rivers, who was in his share of tussles as a player, said before Sunday’s game that every time he’s been in a fight, he’s always felt regret once he’s had time to think about his actions. In the end, this is less theater and more a glorified street fight clip on Youtube.

Later on in his media session, D’Antoni was asked if there were any positive takeaways from the incident.