NEW YORK - In the harshest punishment in NBA playoff history, five New York Knicks, including three starters, and P.J. Brown of the Miami Heat were suspended Thursday for a bench-clearing brawl.
Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Charlie Ward were suspended one game apiece, although only Ewing, Ward and Houston will miss Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals tonight.
Brown's suspension is for two games, meaning his season is over unless the Heat can overcome their 3-2 deficit in the bestof-7 series.
More Knicks were suspended because NBA vice president Rod Thorn adhered to the rule mandating a one-game suspension for players who leave the bench during an altercation. The suspensions were announced in a news release; Thorn did not return phone calls seeking comment.
NBA rules stipulate teams must have nine players in uniform for playoff games, so only three of the Knicks will miss Game 6 tonight. Ward must serve his suspension first because he was one of the principals in the fight on Wednesday night.
Ewing and Houston will miss Game 6 because the NBA uses an alphabetical system when so many players are suspended at once.
Johnson and Starks will miss Sunday's game - whether it's Game 7 at Miami or Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls.
The suspensions figure to have a greater effect on the Knicks, who will have to replace their two leading scorers - AllStar center Ewing (10.8 points per game) and Houston (18.5) - in Game 6. Buck Williams will probably replace Ewing at center and Starks will start in place of Houston. Third-stringer Scott Brooks will handle Ward's duties as the backup point guard.
Miami will sorely miss Brown, one of the few members of the Heat who has sustained his energy and production throughout the series. Brown, who has drawn the defensive assignment on Ewing, did an especially good job in Game 5.
At Heat practice Thursday, Brown said he had "no second thoughts" about grabbing Ward and flipping him upside down along the baseline during the fourth quarter of Miami's 96-81 victory.
"That's what I had to do. I have to protect myself. There was nothing else I could do," he said.
"We have a lot more confidence now. We feel good about what we accomplished last night," Brown said. "You'll definitely see a lot looser Heat team than what you've seen."
Until the blowup at the end of Wednesday's game, the series had been relatively free of the animosity that the teams had shown one another in the regular season.
Aside from several technical fouls, the series wasn't living up to its advance billing. Instead of being a war, it was more like slow torture - two defensiveminded teams making it exceedingly difficult for the other to score.
But the tone changed Tuesday when Miami coach Pat Riley harangued his players for their post-game comments following a Game 4 loss. Riley, who quit the Knicks to take the Miami job two years ago, challenged his players to stand up to the Knicks and get physical with them.
And just like in the past, Riley's motivational tactics worked.
Brown was talking trash to Ewing as early as the first quarter Wednesday night, and the game started to turn nasty late in the fourth quarter when Charles Oakley knocked Alonzo Mourning to the ground on a hard foul.
Starks stirred things up in the third quarter when he started trading insults with the Miami fans, and he waved his middle finger at the crowd - a photo of which ran on the front page of Thursday's New York Post - when he went to the bench.
Just two seconds after Oakley's ejection, Ward ducked down and moved sideways into Brown's legs as Tim Hardaway made a free throw.
Brown wrapped his arm around the smaller Ward's waist, lifted him, flipped him over and threw him to the floor behind the baseline.
New York's John Wallace grabbed Brown, and players from both teams joined the pile.
Before order was restored, several Knicks left the bench to join the melee while the Heat players not in the game stayed on the sideline.
Both coaches, Riley of Miami and Jeff Van Gundy of the Knicks, entered the fray to try to pull players apart.
Starks was pelted with debris as he walked to a tunnel leading to the lockers, and security guards had to restrain him from going into the crowd.
"John (Starks) brought it down on himself. You challenge people in the stands in a highly energized, competitive game - one that's about to end very negatively - and you start flipping people off like that, he brought it upon himself," Riley said at practice Thursday before learning of the suspensions.
The Heat were traveling to New York on Thursday and were not immediately available for comment.
In addition to the suspensions, Brown was fined $10,000; Ward $6,000; and Ewing, Houston and Starks $2,500 each.
The Knicks were fined $20,000 - $5,000 for each player who left the bench, and Starks was fined an additional $5,000 for making an obscene gesture toward the crowd.
Inactive Knicks rookie Dontae' Jones also was suspended for a game and was banned from sitting on the bench for the rest of the postseason. He also left the bench during the fight and reportedly spit at some Miami fans.