NBA flagrant fouls defined, and what caused their sudden surge in the playoffs

NBA flagrant fouls defined, and what caused their sudden surge in the playoffs

What’s behind the sudden spike in 2 fouls during the first week of the NBA playoffs?

Officiating decisions have taken center stage, starting with Draymond Green’s ejection Monday for 2 fouls after stomping on Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis, resulting in a one-game suspension for Green. The decision left the Golden State Warriors short-handed to win Thursday’s Game 3.

On Thursday, James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers became the second star sent to the rain early, when he was called for a flagrant 2 for striking Brooklyn Nets wing Royce O’Neal in the groin while dribbling. Earlier, teammate Joel Embiid was only called for 1 — which did not result in an ejection — when he kicked Nets center Nick Claxton off the ground.

On Saturday, Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks was given 2 flags and an ejection for hitting LeBron James in the groin during Game 3 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In general, flagrant 2 fouls are rare. Only 14 of them were called during the entire 2022-23 NBA regular season, or an average of one every 88 games. Having three of them during the first week of the playoffs is essentially the opposite.

Although it’s common for games to get more physical in the postseason, we don’t usually see 2 fouls called this clearly in the playoffs. There were three flagrant 2’s in all of last year’s postseason – one of them committed against the Grizzlies by Green. And we’ve already surpassed two flagrant 2 totals from both the 2020 and 2021 playoffs while tripling said playoffs in 2019.

The NBA’s rulebook defines a flagrant 1 foul as contact by an opponent that is “unnecessary,” while the more punitive flagrant 2 call requires the contact to be both “unnecessary and excessive.”

Several criteria are offered to distinguish between those categories or fouls that do not rise to the level of obviousness. Referees are asked to consider:

  • intensity of contact

  • Whether or not the player was making a legal basketball play

  • If accompanied by windup and follow-through contact

  • Potential for injury

  • Severity of injury

  • Did the contact lead to an altercation?



James Harden stepped out for a below-the-belt shot on Royce O’Neal

James Harden was given 2 fouls for striking Royce O’Neal in the groin area and was ejected in Game 3 vs. was kicked out of the Nets.

Certainly, neither Green nor Embiid was making a basketball play, making contact and severity of injury the primary factors distinguishing how they were called. Sabonis was listed as questionable for Game 3 with a sternum contusion, which the Kings suffered before finally playing in the fourth quarter — when Green stomped. Claxton was apparently unharmed by Embiid’s kick.

Although Harden’s flagrant came during normal game action, the referees apparently determined that O’Neal struck his arm below the belt and that it was a non-basketball play rather than an accidental part of using his arm to protect the ball.



Embiid kicks Claxton off the ground as he goes down

Joel Embiid is assessed a flagrant 1 after a powerful alley-oop flush kicks Nick Claxton.

Asked on TNT’s broadcast of the game whether groin contact automatically results in a flagrant 2, NBA senior vice president of referee development Monty McCutchen replied, “No. We have a lot of things that we look at. It’s not automatic. [call], because you can accidentally contact there. But when you have significant contact, when you see it have a real impact on the groin, we want to make sure we’re protecting the players.”

Any potential foul call is subject to replay review, but unlike other calls that are decided at the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, flagrant fouls and fights are decided on the court by a referee. The replay center “plays a supporting role.”

The league office will have the final say on any potential further discipline for Embiid, Harden and Brooks. Notably, NBA executive vice president and head of basketball operations Joe Dumars cited on ESPN Green’s track record as a “repeat offender” and his attraction to the Kings’ crowd after the game as factors in the decision to suspend him. Neither is likely to play for Embiid and Harden but could for Brooks, who led the league with 18 technical fouls this season.

If the 76ers or Grizzlies play deep into the playoffs, however, the NBA’s rules on flagrant foul accumulation — which are the same for both the regular season and postseason — could come into play. Players are automatically suspended for one game if they reach a total of four flagrant points, with flagrant one counting as one point and flagrant two counting as two points. Unless the call is downgraded after the fact, that already puts Harden and Brooks — like Green — on suspension halfway through.

Green was the last player to be suspended for an outright foul in the playoffs during the 2016 NBA Finals, when his absence for Game 5 helped the Warriors bounce back from a 3–1 series deficit to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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