With 6:51 to play in the third quarter of Game 5 in their opening-round NBA playoff series against the Thunder, things could not have been going much better for the Rockets. A halftime lead of 3 points had swelled to 18 points behind a 20-2 run to start the second half, with the team’s shooters collectively finding their strokes and forcing Oklahoma City into poor offensive production in what would be a blowout win.
Then P.J. Tucker set a screen for James Harden on a high pick-and-roll. As Thunder point guard Dennis Schroder attempted to—ahem—fight through the screen, he swung his arm up between Tucker’s legs, essentially delivering an uppercut blow to what, for Tucker, is an especially sensitive region. A foul was called.
Tucker, incensed, went after Schroder, who was hollering at the referee about the foul call and ignoring Tucker even as he loomed behind Schroder. As if to make sure Schroder understood his anger, Tucker leaned in and delivered a head-butt to the back of Schroder’s head. Schroder immediately reacted and the two were separated.
Here’s how the play unfolded:
Suspensions for Tucker & Schroder?
In the end, both Schroder and Tucker were ejected by lead referee James Capers after an extensive discussion and replay session. Schroder was given a flagrant foul-2 on the play and Tucker was given a technical foul with an ejection for committing a so-called “hostile act,” which gives referees a wide berth to determine punishment for players for confrontation with coaches, refs and players.
What remains to be seen is whether either Schroder or Tucker will be suspended for Game 6, an elimination game for OKC, now facing a 3-2 series deficit. Tucker’s deliberate head-butt certainly will warrant scrutiny from the league office.
But when league officials consider whether to suspend Schroder, they will take into consideration that he is a repeat offender on this type of foul. It was a long time ago—November 2013, when Schroder was a rookie in Atlanta—but he committed a near-identical foul on DeMarcus Cousins, who was then playing for the Kings.
If you wonder why PJ was so upset, Dennis Schroder is a repeat offender pic.twitter.com/kkhpj6qrHz
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) August 30, 2020
No foul was called on that play but after a review from the NBA, Schroder was suspended one game for that play.
There is also the possibility that Schroder was looking at his maneuver against Tucker as a bit of revenge for a knee to the midsection he suffered from James Harden in Game 1. That play can be seen here:
Again, I can’t tell you the intent of Dennis Schroder on that play any more than I can on this play from earlier in this series. pic.twitter.com/QP3LYkliE6
— 𝘽𝙤𝙤𝙢𝙩𝙤𝙬𝙣 𝙃𝙤𝙤𝙥𝙨 (@BoomtownHoops) August 30, 2020
Losing Tucker Would Be a Blow to Rockets
That probably is enough discussion of whacks to the groin for one game. More important will be the impact that suspensions for Tucker and/or Schroder could have.
Tucker is a valuable defensive chip for the Rockets and playing without him would likely mean the Rockets would have to put Danuel House into the starting lineup as the power forward. House struggled in Game 5 (2-for-10 shooting, 7 points) but had played well in the previous four games (16.0 points, 50.0% shooting). Jeff Green would also be an option for the Rockets.
Losing Schroder would take away one advantage the Thunder have been able to pick at over the course of this series—the three-guard lineup of Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Of course, it won’t much matter unless the Thunder make some other offensive adjustment from Game 5, in which they shot 31.5% from the field as Houston allowed rookie Lu Dort to shoot almost at will. He did, and made just three of his 16 shot attempts.