First of all, as a basketball euphemism, physical play is bullshit. Everything that happens on a basketball court is physical play. A bounce-pass is a physical play. When broadcast crews and halftime pundits and bloggers say that one team is playing more physical than the other, particularly in the playoffs, what they are saying is that one of the teams is being more violent.
Calling it physical play, and not just plain old violence, is a way of drawing an artificial boundary between kinds of violence that can be passed off as heightened versions of regular basketball actions—like, say, extending your elbows into the chest of an opposing player while also screening him, or hooking your arm around the arm of an opposing player and wrenching his shoulder out of the socket while also battling for low-post position, or putting your foot under an opposing shooter while he’s in the air so that he will come down and land on it and (probably) twist his ankle, or swiping your arm down an opposing player’s front in a hopeless reach for the ball and instead slapping him in the dick and balls, or flattening an opposing player who drives to the hoop to “send a message” to anyone else who would venture into the paint—and those that cannot. Like for example, responding to any of the above with a stiff and purposeful two-handed shove.
Once upon a time, in a magical era known as Before The Players Started Wearing Cornrows And All The Whites Freaked Out, the NBA had an infinitely higher tolerance for the explicit, unalloyed form of violence. It wasn’t quite the NHL, with its weirdly ritualized goon fisticuffs, but scuffles, and even straight-up fights, happened, and were not automatically a huge scandal. Even the stars sometimes shoved each other, without getting ejected!
The broadly shared understanding was that, as a natural and generally uncontroversial on-court consequence of too much physical play, the responsible party might catch anything from a sharp two-handed shove all the way to just getting straight-up knocked the fuck out. The undisguised violence, generally, had latitude to respond to the violence dressed up as basketball.
This, my friends, was fair. In a context in which a reckless elbow to another guy’s face might plausibly lead to an actual fight—in which the league did not yet treat merely leaving the bench area to come to your teammate’s aid as tantamount to wielding a chainsaw on the court—the guy who caught the elbow could react the way a human being reacts to catching an elbow to the face without receiving a harsher penalty than the guy who elbowed him in the face. He could shove the motherfucker. Shoving the motherfucker who elbowed you in the face was not considered worse than elbowing another guy in the face.
The goon, the spaz, the Dookie (in name or spirit), the Kelly Olynyk or Matthew Dellavedova or Dahntay Jones or Matt Barnes, did not have an advantage just because he’d figured out how to navigate the league’s tolerance for violence that looks sorta like an uncoordinated doofus trying very hard to play basketball. He couldn’t just go around yanking other guys’ shoulders out of their sockets or smashing their dicks and balls, secure in the knowledge that, so long as he dressed these things up like physical basketball play, any reprisals would harm his targets and their teams infinitely more than him and his.
This is what chest-pounding old-timers like Reggie Miller miss when they reflexively react to any present-day instance of one player violently flattening another by going Oh that’s just old-school physical playoff basketball right there. Yes, it is: It is basketball from an earlier time, when the recipient of the violent flattening did not bear the burden of exhibiting superhuman self-control in response to getting blown up on purpose (or, uh, with reckless indifference) by an opponent. He could get up and shove the motherfucker and not instantaneously earn himself an ejection and a suspension.
Now, he cannot do that. Now, he is at an enormous disadvantage. Now, the rules create an artificial opening for unskilled doofuses whose only virtue is a willingness to flatten people. Now, in a dismal irony, the NBA’s institutional fear of fights has turned goonery, if not outright clumsiness, into a discrete and marketable basketball skill. That is why Kelly Olynyk and Matthew Dellavedova and Dahntay Jones and Matt Barnes are professional basketball players today, despite a combined basketball skill-set between the four of them that would struggle to win an All-Star Skills Challenge competition against a particularly nimble basset hound.
Here is what I mean:
Two events happen, here. The first is, Boston’s Kelly Olynyk flattens Washington’s Kelly Oubre Jr. with a chest-to-chest two-handed shove; the referee whistles him for a common offensive foul. The second is, during the ensuing stoppage, Oubre flattens Olynyk with a chest-to-chest two-handed shove; the referees, after a conference, assess him a Flagrant-2 violation and eject him from the game; he faces a possible suspension from Game 4 of their best-of-seven series. Olynyk, you see, benefited from the latitude allowed for physical play, but not for a proportional response stripped of the bullshit pretense that it was just basketball.
He operated, that is to say, in the special sphere the NBA’s cringing corporate fear of angry black basketball players has set aside for goons and doofuses, assuming, as the NBA’s modern-day goons always do, that the rules he carefully hides behind would protect him if any of his targets decided to take what he was implying—that the currency of the game would be violence and intimidation—and make it explicit. That if anybody said, Okay, if this is a shoving contest, here comes a shove, he could throw himself on the ground and act shocked and then continue playing while the other guy got sent to the showers for being honest about what physical play actually is.
The only thing Oubre did wrong was letting him keep his teeth.