INDIANAPOLIS -- The NBA suspended Antoine Walker for tonight's Game 4 of the Celtics-Pacers opening-round playoff series at Conseco Fieldhouse, announcing the news late yesterday afternoon.
According to league senior vice president Stu Jackson, it was a clear-cut case, given Walker pushed aside official Tom Washington after being ejected from Thursday night's Game 3 with 4 minutes 6 seconds remaining. Walker was trying to reach referee Bennett Salvatore, who hit the Celtics power forward with a second technical and automatic ejection. The second technical stemmed from a second shoving and shouting match between Walker and the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal.
O'Neal received a $10,000 fine.
"The rule is pretty clear here on this matter," said Jackson. "If you make contact or engage in improper contact with an official, you will be automatically suspended for a game. Certainly at the point where Antoine tried to address the other official [Salvatore] after the incident was over, it escalated into something else. [Walker] put himself in harm's way and, in this case, harm's way was a gray shirt [of a referee].
"When Antoine made contact with an official, he ran the risk of big penalties."
Not surprisingly, the Celtics saw the situation differently. Coach Doc Rivers, executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, and the Boston players had believed Walker would be on the court for Game 4. Rivers and Ainge spoke with Jackson to plead their case, while Walker talked with NBA security officials. O'Neal called Jackson, and relayed his version of events to Jackson, as well as NBA security. Jackson said he did not speak with Walker yesterday.
Knowing Walker did not intend anything malicious, Rivers and Ainge didn't think his actions warranted a suspension. In fact, before the league announced the penalty, the Celtics practiced early yesterday afternoon with Walker a full participant.
"We were surprised and disappointed with the league's decision," said Rivers through a team spokesman. "However, we are a resilient team and we will just have to overcome this and be ready for Game 4. We wish the league's decision would have come sooner in the day, so we could have prepared for [tonight's] game knowing we would not have one of our starting players available to us."
Rivers will make a decision today on who will replace Walker in the starting lineup, though Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson, and Mark Blount constitute the list of candidates. With Walker unavailable, the Celtics will lose experience, leadership, and reliable scoring and rebounding. In the first three games of the series, Walker averaged 15.3 points and 7 rebounds in 35.3 minutes.
When a bruised left knee forced Walker to miss three games in early April, Rivers started Blount against Philadelphia. But in the next two games, against Washington and Milwaukee, Rivers went with Perkins. Rivers felt uncomfortable with both Perkins and rookie Jefferson coming off the bench and spending a lot of time on the court together.
Perkins made his third start when Raef LaFrentz missed the regular-season finale with a strained groin. After not playing due to a coach's decision in Game 2, Perkins finished with 6 points and 4 rebounds in 11 minutes off the bench in Game 3.
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said he had an altered game plan ready if Walker was suspended, though during practice yesterday he preferred to keep the focus on the adjustments his team needed to make. Still, Boston faces the bigger changes and challenges. The players had no immediate insight into who would replace Walker.
"If we are [going to play without Walker], then guys are going to have to step up," said Paul Pierce before learning of the suspension. "That's what team is all about. If one guy goes down, the other guy has to be there to pick us up.
"It's another bump in this uphill battle and we've just got to be prepared. Our backs are against the wall right now. There's a lot of pressure on us. Like I've said, it's a competitive group and I think we're going to be ready to respond."
The Pacers will also be prepared, knowing full well how suspensions can bring a team together. In the wake of the Nov. 19 brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.) when five Indiana players received suspensions of various lengths, the Pacers learned how to deal with adversity and how to control their emotions. That has been in evidence during this series.
O'Neal knew it was best to get away from Walker after they became entangled. He also expected the Celtics would challenge him with physical play.
For a change, O'Neal and the league's disciplinarians -- from Jackson to the officials -- seem to be thinking along the same lines. Clearly, O'Neal came out far better than Walker when the NBA handed out punishments. The Indiana power forward, who grabbed Walker by the jersey on one occasion and shoved him on another, thought he had a more sympathetic case.
"For guys to take shots at me after the whistle is going to upset me," said O'Neal. "I took hard fouls the entire game. All I did, and Paul [Pierce] and those guys can vouch for me, even when I thought the fouls were a bit excessive, I'd tell the refs, `That's a playoff foul, no sweat.' But this league is based on guys wanting to hold their ground. A fight is a punch, but guys are going to tangle up and they're going to grab each other's jersey. There's nothing immature about that. That's playoff basketball. If you look at the history of the game, you see that in every series.
"I know that I can't throw a punch. I'm not going to throw a punch. But if a guy is swinging at my head, I'm going to grab him to make sure that he understands that I don't like that. So, hopefully, that grab of the jersey is to let him know, `OK, we've been through that, you can't do that anymore.' "
Walker won't have a chance to do anything more until the series shifts back to Boston for Game 5 Tuesday night. Until then, the Celtics will look to their young big men for physical play and a much-needed lift.