The action happens in a split second, but the reaction can take minutes where human emotion and judgment enter into the equation, along with reputation.
Enter Bobby Portis, who instinctively saw Washington Wizards point guard Tomas Satoransky cutting across the baseline and rising for a dunk.
Portis went up high for the block, getting the ball and a chunk of the lighter Satoransky as he took a hard fall and the Wizards training staff was immediately called to the floor.
A common foul was upgraded to a flagrant 2 and Portis was ejected with 2:35 remaining in the Bulls’ 101-90 loss at the United Center Saturday night. Although Nikola Mirotic left Chicago nearly two weeks ago, the remnants of their preseason incident could’ve very well factored into the officials decision to throw Portis out.
“First time I’ve ever been involved in it. Something new for me,” Portis said. “Not gonna be involved in it too much in my career. At the same time, the refs called what they called, you have to respect the refs. No injuries intended on Satoransky, just competing, playing hard like I always do.”
Similar to the NFL and its changing rules surrounding helmet-to-helmet hits, the NBA’s rule on flagrant fouls are subject to interpretation based on the definition of “unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent. It is an unsportsmanlike act and the offender is ejected immediately.”
Portis made a split-second decision and suffered the ultimate penalty for playing with instinct, completing his 13-point, four-rebound night in 22 minutes—one of the few Bulls who was on the plus side (+3) in a game where a predictable letdown happened after an emotional high of Friday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“As a basketball player you’re not worried about trying to hurt somebody,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com. “You’re worried about trying to protect your teammates. He blew by my teammate, tight game, we’re down eight at the time, I think I can make a play on the basketball, maybe we can hit a three and we’ll be down five.”
Portis made clear there was no intent to hurt Satoransky, and the collision made things look worse than the play Portis was attempting to make.
“Everybody knows the rule,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s a dangerous play. If he had to do it all over again, he probably would have taken it back. It’s a competitive moment. He’s trying to prevent the dunk but it’s one of those things.”
At some point for Portis, the incident with Mirotic will be a footnote in his dossier as opposed to the headliner. He won’t always be subject for fodder from fans in visiting arenas, but for now he’ll have to wear this scarlet letter.
It didn’t help that Portis was in the wrong place at the wrong time earlier in the game, with his knee making contact with backup point guard Tim Frazier’s head, causing a nasal fracture for Frazier in the second quarter.
Already without John Wall following knee surgery, Portis’s play against Satoransky left the Wizards without a point guard for the last three minutes, even though the Bulls couldn’t take advantage.
“I gotta go out there and play basketball,” Portis said. “I hear it from the crowd every away game, in the streets. It don’t bother me. I’ll probably hear it the next couple years.”
After serving his eight-game suspension to start the season he’s been one of the most dependable reserves in the NBA, averaging 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 20.9 minutes. His player efficiency rating is nearly 21 and the Bulls’ off/on numbers were better with Portis on the floor than it was with Mirotic, although Mirotic’s gaudy numbers garnered more attention.
But the first thing that comes to mind with Portis is a potential reputation building, one he hopes to avoid.
“It looked, to me, late in the game—in a close game—it looked to me like maybe Bobby was going across the lane to make a play at the ball,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I don’t think it was a dirty play. I think he was going over to try to make a play, to prevent a layup.”
Satoransky was having a night, leading the inconsistent Wizards with 25 points and six assists, hitting five triples as the Bulls focused their attention on Wall’s All-Star backcourt mate, Bradley Beal.
Beal was just three of 13 as the Bulls gave themselves a chance after trailing by 16 midway through the third quarter. With Zach LaVine unavailable on a back-to-back and Kris Dunn still not back in action, the Bulls had seven players score in double figures but couldn’t produce enough offense consistently.
Justin Holiday scored 15 and Lauri Markkanen was rediscovered by his teammates after a seven-shot performance Friday night, but couldn’t take full advantage of his 19 shots, hitting only five.
The Bulls shot just 42.5 percent and were nine of 32 from 3-point range, but Hoiberg lauded the effort. After cutting the Wizards’ lead to seven with 4:14 left on a Holiday triple, the Bulls went scoreless.
“I thought we did a great job of hanging in there when they got up double digits,” Hoiberg said. “We have to get off to better starts, we defended much better in the second half. That was the difference in the game, but it had nothing to do with effort.”
Too bad for the Bulls and for Portis, that effort wasn’t rewarded.