Nobody needs to remind anyone that the ugliest brawl in NBA history took place in Detroit. The infamous “Malice at the Palace” was back in 2004, and on Sunday night, we might’ve been dangerously close to a similar on-court scene.
It happened in the third quarter of the Lakers–Pistons game. Jerami Grant was shooting a free throw, and as LeBron James and Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart battled for rebounding position, LeBron took a wild swing, with a closed fist, backward, connecting with Stewart’s face in what is nearly impossible to regard as anything other than an intentional, hostile act.
You be the judge:
Here’s a slightly different angle:
That was the start of a scene that quickly started to spiral. Stewart and LeBron had to be separated, and from there, Stewart, with his face now covered in blood, basically lost his mind, trying to fight his way through anyone and everyone to get at James.
He even tried to break free through the tunnel, with the Lakers’ bench being warned to watch for Stewart coming out the other side.
Once they showed video of the punch on the big screen, fans inside the arena started to get palpably agitated. The PA announcer instructed everyone to stay in their seats as memories of the “Malice at the Palace” started running through everyone’s mind. This could’ve easily gotten out of hand. Credit to everyone who didn’t let that happen.
When the dust settled, LeBron was assessed a Flagrant-2 and ejected from the game. Stewart, who was charged with a loose-ball foul, was assessed two technical fouls for his reaction and was also ejected. Russell Westbrook also received a technical foul.
We’re clearly going to be hearing a lot more about this. Stewart and James are almost certainly going to face suspensions. But let’s not lose sight of what caused this. It was LeBron’s purposeful punch. Again, it is impossible to look at that video and think anything other than LeBron swung at Stewart, with a closed fist, on purpose.
You can argue about whether he intended to hit him in the face, but that doesn’t really matter. He swung with intent. He swung high. And he absolutely smoked Stewart, and his reaction — while also not acceptable and deserving of a suspension in its own right — was certainly understandable.
How long will LeBron’s suspension be? Based on precedent, my best guess would be two to three games, and I would lean toward the two. You can at least argue LeBron didn’t fully intend to hit Stewart in the face (though I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen swinging that high within that proximity), whereas in the 2018 Rockets-Lakers brawl (video below), Brandon Ingram, who got a four-game suspension, and Rajon Rondo, who got three games, both threw clearly intentional punches to the face.
The most comparable recent example was J.R. Smith getting suspended two games for taking a similar backward swing at, and connecting with the face of, Jae Crowder in the 2015 playoffs.