Rules are rules, the NBA says, fair or not.
So the Phoenix Suns will face the San Antonio Spurs without Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw on Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals.
The two are serving a one-game suspension for leaving the bench area following the flagrant foul by San Antonio's Robert Horry on Steve Nash in the waning seconds of Monday night's Game 4.
Horry gets a two-game suspension for what Nash called "a quality hip-check" and for a forearm to Raja Bell in the subsequent scrum.
The Spurs probably can do without Horry, a role player known heretofore for his clutch 3-point shooting. The Suns, however, will sorely miss Stoudemire, a first-team all-NBA selection and their leading scorer and rebounder in the series.
To make matters worse for Phoenix, Diaw would have been the starter in Stoudemire's absence.
"It is not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness," said Stu Jackson, NBA executive vice president, "and this is the right decision at this point of time."
The suspensions deflated what was one of the Suns' most magnificent triumphs in the three seasons since Nash came to Phoenix. The Suns outscored the Spurs 16-3 down the stretch in San Antonio to win 104-98 and square the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
But with 18 seconds left, as Nash dribbled along the sideline, Horry connected with his hip and shoulder, sending the Suns' playmaker into the scorer's table. Stoudemire and Diaw made a move toward the scene, but were pushed back by Phoenix's coaches.
Suns owner Robert Sarver said it was "unbelievable" that his team would end up paying a higher price for the incident than San Antonio would, especially since Stoudemire and Diaw didn't come close to any contact with the Spurs.
"The way this worked out for us was I believe extremely unfair," Sarver said. "As an owner next year, that will be the first thing on my agenda &
to see how that rule is applied, because the team that plays dirty should not be rewarded and the team that plays fair should not be penalized."
Unless the rule is changed, the NBA has no choice, Jackson said.
"We don't want to be in a position where we're determining the outcome of a series," Jackson said during a conference call.
"However, we always have to be in the position of enforcing the rule, and this rule is clear. It's a bright line. Historically, if you break it you get suspended regardless of what the circumstances are."
Stoudemire is averaging 23.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in the series. His loss removes the Suns' imposing inside presence. Phoenix's problems are compounded by the absence of Diaw, who started when Stoudemire missed all but three games last season because of surgeries on both knees.
Horry, meanwhile, has scored 4.8 points per game.
"I feel like I've just been punched in the gut," Sarver said, "and I feel bad for our players. But having said that, we have been known to come back from adversity. I think this would classify as adversity."
Jackson said it was clear that Stoudemire and Diaw had violated the rule, saying they were "20 to 25 feet" from their seats.
"Both players stood and made their way towards the altercation which occurred on the court," Jackson said. "They did not remain in the bench area."
Jackson brushed aside a suggestion that Tim Duncan violated the rule in the second quarter when he rushed onto the court after Francisco Elson dunked and landed on the shoulders of the Suns' James Jones.
"Both players got up," Jackson said. "There was no altercation, and they ran down to the other end of the court."
Jackson also wasn't buying Stoudemire's contention he had a right to be at the scorer's table because he was checking in to the game.
"I've not seen a player report in quite that way," Jackson said.
The suspensions are the latest twist in an intriguing series that's featured several rough plays.
Nash has received the brunt of it &
a gash in the nose in Game 1, a kick in the groin in Game 3. Now a hockey-style check into the scorer's table.
But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn't even think Horry's foul on Nash was that bad.
"It was just an end-of-game foul and Steve fell down," Popovich said before the penalties were announced. "I didn't think it was such a big deal."
Associated Press writer Elizabeth White contributed to this story.
Suns face Game 5 without star forward Stoudemire, Diaw