Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford was ejected from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals after picking up a flagrant-2 foul on Matthew Dellavedova near the end of the second quarter on Sunday. The Hawks went on to lose 114-111 in overtime. It was a controversial call, as the Cleveland Cavaliers guard fell into his legs before Horford came down on him.
Dellavedova has had similar incidents with Atlanta sharpshooter Kyle Korver and Chicago Bulls big man Taj Gibson in the postseason, so some thought it might have been intentional. Regardless, Horford had to watch the remainder of the game with a couple of the Hawks' trainers, trying to send good vibes. He said it hurt to not be out there with his teammates.
"I did think he went at me," Horford said. "But I should've handled it better, shouldn't have got caught up in that. It's something that I'll definitely learn from.
Horford didn't want to call Dellavedova a dirty player and praised his competitiveness, but added that "there's gotta be a line at some point."
"We're out there competing," he said. "But he's gotta learn, I mean he's only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever, but he's gotta learn that at the end of the day it's a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other and, I don't think that it was malicious, but he's gotta learn."
Horford added that, in the heat of the moment, he told a referee, "Listen, he went after my legs." He took responsibility for retaliating, though, repeatedly calling it a very poor decision.
For his part, Dellavedova defended the play, via the Associated Press. "I would obviously disagree with that [going after Horford's legs], I was boxing him out. You can see from the baseline view that he's pulling my arm."
LeBron James also defended his teammate.
"We're not trying to get people hurt," James said, via the AP. "But you play to win the game and you play aggressively. This guy, he works his tails off every single day. He beats the odds and he comes to play as hard as he can every single night. If they're focusing on Delly, they're focusing on the wrong thing."
Horford said, "If it was on purpose or not, we don't know. Maybe it wasn't on purpose. But, you know, with just his track record, I just felt like it was."
"I don't think when Al sees the play, he's going to be mad about it," Cleveland guard Iman Shumpert said. "[Dellavedova] respects the game, Al respects the game, just happened."
All three officials were unanimous on the call, according to NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. Referee Ken Mauer said that Horford received the flagrant-2 for "contact above the shoulders, to the shoulder and head area of Dellavedova," while Dellavedova received his tech for making contact with Horford's knee area.
Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer said he watched the play, and he wasn't sure whether it warranted an ejection because it was hard to tell whether Horford hit Dellavedova's shoulder or head first. If he hit his shoulder first, Budenholzer said there should have been no ejection.
"I really didn't see too much, but then I looked at the replay," Hawks swingman DeMarre Carroll said. "I just seen Dellavedova diving. You know, he did it to Kyle. He's one of our starters and he gotta have surgery, he's out 4-6 months. And he did it to Al. I think Al said, ‘Enough of this.' And he did what he did.
"I think [Dellavedova] is just competitive, man," Carroll continued. "Sometimes when you compete so hard, you can take it overboard. So there's gotta be a fine line between competing and being crazy. You know, Al just did what he thought was necessary to protect our team and make a stand. And he got threw out."
Carroll added that, while going after a loose ball is OK, "when you dive at people's feet, nothing but bad things are going to happen."
The incident might have decided Atlanta's season, but none of the players wanted to use it as an excuse. The Hawks were able to force overtime without Horford, Korver and Thabo Sefolosha, but they just couldn't quite come away with the victory. Unfortunately, this was a must-win, and now they're facing elimination.
"The referees, they went out there and looked at it for about 10 minutes until they got it right," Atlanta guard Kent Bazemore said. "We can't really argue with that. But when you look at [Dellavedova's] track record and his history, it's a lot of things that can be said. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. We lost Al and we still had a game to play."