EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Metta World Peace harmed much more than his own tattered reputation when he viciously elbowed Oklahoma City’s James Harden in the head.
The Los Angeles Lakers troublemaker also deprived his team of his services as their starting small forward and defensive stopper for at least six playoff games while he serves his 10th suspension in the past decade.
World Peace was ejected from Sunday’s game against the Thunder for striking Oklahoma City’s top reserve. He claimed the blow was an accidental, overzealous celebration of a dunk, yet even Kobe Bryant and his Lakers teammates weren’t defending his inexplicable actions.
“It’s hard to get into a guy’s head and know exactly what happened in that situation,” Bryant said. “I haven’t really spoken to him about it. You’ve really got to ask him.”
World Peace will miss the Lakers’ season finale on Thursday at Sacramento and the Lakers’ next six games. The playoffs open Saturday, and Los Angeles is likely to be the Western Conference’s third seed — and Oklahoma City is locked into the No. 2 seed, meaning the clubs could meet right after World Peace’s suspension ends in the second round.
He will lose nearly $348,000 in salary if he serves the entire suspension this year. If the Lakers exit the playoffs swiftly, the remainder of the suspension must be served next season.
World Peace still hasn’t answered media questions about his actions, but he issued a brief statement on his website, promising to follow up with a podcast.
“I apologize to the Oklahoma City Thunder fans and the OKC organization,” World Peace wrote on ronartest.com. “I look foward (sic) to getting back on the floor with my teammates and competing for the Lakers fans.”
Commissioner David Stern alluded to Artest’s lengthy history of on-court altercations and strange behavior in announcing the penalty in a statement. Although Harden appears to be recovering well, he hasn’t been cleared to return to the Thunder.
“The concussion suffered by James Harden demonstrates the danger posed by violent acts of this kind, particularly when they are directed at the head area,” Stern said in a statement. “We remain committed to taking necessary measures to protect the safety of NBA players, including the imposition of appropriate penalties for players with a history of on-court altercations.”
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team accepted the latest suspension for World Peace, who has two years left on his contract with Los Angeles.
“His most recent lapse in judgment is not to be condoned or accepted,” Kupchak said after praising World Peace as largely a model citizen with the Lakers.
“His actions could have seriously injured another player, and his absence during this suspension will hurt our team as well,” Kupchak added. “While we accept the league’s decision, we will be supportive of Metta and try to help him be more professional on the court.”
The suspension is the third career ban of at least seven games for Artest, whose rap sheet might not fit on a basketball card at this point.
He got an 86-game suspension in 2004 — the longest ban for an on-court incident in NBA history — for jumping into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the Detroit suburbs to fight fans, and he served a seven-game suspension in 2007 for his no-contest plea on a domestic violence charge.
Even before his odd decision to change his name to promote peace last year, he had largely rehabilitated his image during three seasons with the Lakers, winning the NBA’s top citizenship award last spring for his charity work in mental-health awareness. Yet World Peace also slammed his forearm into the face of Dallas guard J.J. Barea in the closing minutes of a home playoff loss to the Mavericks last season, earning a one-game postseason suspension.
World Peace leveled Harden moments after dunking over Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant in the second quarter of the Lakers’ double-overtime victory over the Thunder. While pounding his chest with his right arm, World Peace cocked his elbow and threw it at the back and side of Harden’s head.
He claimed the elbow was completely accidental in a brief postgame statement, but later acknowledged on Twitter that the blow “looks bad.”
World Peace didn’t speak to the media after the Lakers’ practice Tuesday, heading to the locker room at the moment media members entered the gym at the Lakers’ training complex. But Bryant acknowledged the obvious problem for the Lakers, who lose a starter and their defensive stopper right before the postseason.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Bryant said. “James, from what I hear, is OK. As far as Metta goes, he has to focus on himself, and however many games they give him, they give him. He just has to be prepared, and when he comes back, just step right in and be ready to go.”
Bryant and the Lakers are clearly torn between supporting a teammate and recoiling from World Peace’s actions. Harden and Bryant are friends.
Almost to a man, the reaction from Oklahoma City was similar.
From general manager Sam Presti to coach Scott Brooks to Durant and the players, the Thunder responded that they were more concerned about Harden than the suspension.
“The league did it. You’ve got to live with it,” Durant said, echoing the sentiments of his coach and GM. “We can move past it now. We’re just worried about getting James back in the locker room.”
Center Kendrick Perkins was the lone exception.
“Just a play that was uncalled for,” he said. “He could have seriously injured somebody, so I do think it was fair. Obviously, they looked at it a few times because it took them a couple days to finally give the suspension.”
Perkins added that “if he could go back and change the hands of time, he would take that play back.”
“It’s just not good for our league, especially on a national TV game,” Perkins said. “That highlight’s going to just keep getting played. We don’t want to be labeled as that type of league.”
Brooks wouldn’t weigh in on the possibility World Peace could return from suspension for a second-round matchup with the Thunder.
“I’m not concerned with who we play, as long as we play as hard as we can and play to the best of our abilities,” Brooks said. “You can’t focus on matchups. You can’t focus on individual players.”
Lakers coach Mike Brown, who professed ignorance of what happened after the game, said he finally viewed a replay and spoke with World Peace about it briefly, but said he didn’t attempt an in-depth evaluation of what World Peace was thinking.
“You’re concerned about it,” said Brown, an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers when Artest precipitated that infamous brawl in the stands. “He’s a starter for us, and he’s important to what we do. … What was going through his mind, I haven’t talked to him. What Metta said is he shouldn’t have done it. He’s got to keep his cool.”
Brown said World Peace gave him the same explanation of the elbow as an excited accident.
“What am I supposed to do, call him a liar?” Brown asked. “He said it was accidental. Now was it accidental or not? I don’t know.”
The Lakers will be further depleted in Thursday’s finale without Matt Barnes. The Sacramento native and backup swingman is out with a sprained right ankle, but the team is optimistic he’ll be back for the playoffs.
With World Peace and Barnes both out, second-year pro Devin Ebanks will get more playing time. Ebanks, who should be fine after dropping a 55-pound weight on his hand Tuesday, played extensive minutes against the Thunder, contributing little offensively but making two big defensive plays in the final minute of the second overtime.
Bryant realizes the Lakers will miss World Peace, who entered perhaps the best stretch of his up-and-down season when Bryant sat down for seven games to rest his bruised shin earlier this month. World Peace is averaging 7.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while regularly matching up against the opposing team’s top scorer.
“He was playing extremely well,” Bryant said. “It happened. When he comes back, he’s going to be playing the same way he was playing before he left, if not better. He’ll have time off. He’ll have a chance to get in even better shape. He might be better when he comes back.”
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