Open season on LeBron James continues tonight in Washington, where the wizardry of the King will run smack dab into the cavalier causticity winked at by the NBA.
The "hard foul" has come back into vogue in the Cleveland-Washington series, and the artistry and beauty of James' game will be hindered, if not squashed, by the Wizards' determination to uglify the matchup until James can show he's capable of playing through it.
He certainly didn't demonstrate that in Game 2, and this showcase first-round series runs the risk of being dragged down to the same low level that has turned casual fans of the game into nonwatchers.
"In general, fans do not want to see a rumble. They want to see the most graceful game on the planet," said NBA vice president Stu Jackson, who took another look at several hard fouls committed in Tuesday night's Game 2 and declined to reclassify any of them as flagrant. "Contact occurs, and our objective is to make sure the game is played safely."
On one of the many hard fouls against James in Game 2, Washington center Brendan Haywood raked James across the neck with a forearm after stopping him as he drove into the lane. Haywood undoubtedly gave more than a little extra contact on the play, but in Jackson's mind, it was mitigated by Haywood's helping hold James up after the foul was committed.
"We're looking at the severity of the conduct, whether a player wound up and followed through. It was a hard foul, but I did not feel it was flagrant -- and I've reviewed hundreds of these," Jackson said.
James was never the same in Game 2 after scoring 11 first-quarter points and being on the receiving end of a couple of hard fouls, and Wizards coach Eddie Jordan sat at the interview podium after the game and promised more "hard sportsmanship fouls."
Hard sportsmanship fouls? Is there really such a thing?
There is in the NBA, and the league's long-standing acceptance of tolerable levels of violence is one of the factors keeping casual fans and ambivalent observers from rekindling their love of the game. It has been a dozen years since the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets went after each other so hard in the 1994 Finals that it actually repulsed a significant segment of viewers, and the game has remained rough in the years since, despite the league's efforts at cracking down on contact.
Actually, though, the game had been getting dirty long before that, with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn bringing about a change in the level of acceptable violence when they invoked the so-called "Jordan Rules" and opted to beat Michael Jordan up rather than allow him to showcase his talents around the basket at their expense. Even before that, Kevin McHale unleashed a forearm clothesline on Kurt Rambis of the Lakers in the 1984 Finals that still goes down as one of the cheapest shots and hardest fouls in NBA playoff history.
Hack-a-Shaq is now part of the lexicon; "no layup" rules have been in vogue among the truly tough teams and those that only aspire to such cultures ("We don't exactly have Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel here, you know," Eddie Jordan said); and fouling -- an act that requires less skill than anything else in basketball -- dictates late-game strategy in nearly every semiclose game, clock management superseding flow.
Paul Shirley wrote about the phenomenon last season when he played for the Suns, one of the few pleasurable teams to watch -- at least to many casual NBA fans:
"At some point after the Bird-Johnson era, something changed in NBA basketball. Whatever it was alienated most of the people I know. No one in Kansas watches professional basketball. They first grew disillusioned with the me-first, style-before-substance attitude, but that was not really the reason they stopped watching. They stopped watching because the game itself was no fun. Coaches had tightened their grip, and basketball had become a slugfest. The emphasis switched to defense as the powers-that-be realized that anyone, no matter how limited in ability, could win if they stopped the other team from scoring. Consequently, players were taught that it was more important to learn how to play defense than to learn how to shoot a basketball. By the late 1990s, I, and most everyone I know, could hardly sit through an entire NBA game."
James is the latest player to be compared to Jordan, and the Wizards have decided it's in their best interest to put a little extra on their fouls until King James can prove he's tough enough to play through it. If he isn't, he can look forward to a career of being manhandled and knocked down, just as opposing players do to Vince Carter.
"Roughhousing never has an effect on my game. I can play finesse, I can play physical, whatever type of game it is, I'm up for it," James said Thursday. "I'll be ready, I promise you."
James is the type of breakthrough star the league has been seeking since Jordan left, and the level of his crossover appeal, with a lot riding on how he performs in his first career playoff series, will play a huge part in dictating whether the NBA will reconnect with or disconnect from the general public.
In explaining his reasoning for ordering his players to give a little extra when fouling James, Eddie Jordan pointed to how the 21-year-old led the league in "and ones" (three-point plays that usually happen in the paint) and how James, in the view of the Wizards coach, gets more benefit of the doubt than almost anyone else in the league when referees award a continuation.
"I've been preaching since I got here for the need to get physical," Jordan said. "We've been too soft in the lane for two years."
So tonight, the Wizards will demonstrate the LeBron Rules. That's where the NBA game has brought us, whether fans like it or not.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.