by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
There might not be a person in the NBA more familiar with this specific rule, and so Viacheslav Kravtsov had a feeling that his name was about to be called.
There was 9:07 remaining in the second quarter and the Suns trailed the Knicks 34-21. Phoenix forward Markieff Morris had just been fouled near the basket by JR Smith and was headed to the line for two shots. Or he was supposed to be.
Instead, Morris decided to retaliate by shoving Smith in the chest, a blow seen by the refs. The whistle blew and a technical foul was called. It was Morris’ second of the game, triggering an automatic ejection and leaving, as stated in NBA rule No. 9 Section II, the choice as to who would shoot the two foul shots for the Suns up to Knicks head coach Mike Woodson. The Knicks coach smiled, licked his lips, checked with his assistants and then made his choice.
“I’m one of the bench guys,” Kravtsov would say from Madison Square Garden’s visitor’s locker room Monday night following Phoenix’s 98-96 overtime loss to the Knicks. “So it was a high percentage that [Woodson] was going to choose me.
“Also, it’s the fourth time this has happened to me so I was kind of expecting it. I’m an expert at it now.”
Kravtsov’s first experience with this seldom-applied rule came last year, his first in the NBA. It was late December and the Pistons, who had signed the 6-11 Ukrainian that offseason, were playing the Wizards. Detroit guard Rodney Stuckey drove left toward the baseline, got to the basket, took off toward the rim and was then smacked in the face. He was injured and unable to go to the line, handing Wizards head coach Randy Whitman the same choice that Mike Woodson was given on Monday night. Like Woodson, Whitman wanted Viacheslav Kravtsov, then a rookie who had yet to appear in an NBA game, to take the foul shots.
After spending 28 games watching from the bench, Kravtsov’s NBA debut had finally come—because an opposing coach had decided to sub him in.
“Guys on the bench were yelling, ‘Hey Slava, be ready,’ and I was very confused,” recalled Kravtsov. “In Europe, we don’t have this rule. So I’m just sitting there on the bench and then I hear my name called.”
Kravtsov would go on to make one of two. He would finish the season, though, as a 30 percent foul shooter, hitting just 11 of his 37 attempts. Twice more he would be called upon by opposing coaches to take foul shots for injured or ejected players. Monday night at the Garden, Mike Woodson would become coach No. 4.
“It’s hard, you’re just sitting there, not warming up,” said Kravtsov. “It’s not that it’s so bad, but I’m not so comfortable [doing it].”
Monday night against the Knicks, though, he certainly looked it. Upon being singled out by Woodson, Kravtsov energetically strolled toward the scorers table, past Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek—who gave him a quick pep talk—and then headed to the line.
“Go make two of them,” was what Hornacek, a 90 percent foul shooter during his 14-year NBA career, later said he told Kravtsov, adding upon being asked if Kravtsov appeared nervous: “No. Slava is a very good free-throw shooter. I think it’s happened before and he’s made them.”
Kravtsov stepped up to the line and the Garden crowd, very much enjoying the moment, roared. He fielded the pass from the official, took a breath and let the first shot go. It bounced around the rim and in. The second attempt was too strong and clanked off the back of the rim. On the next dead ball, Hornacek subbed Channing Fyre in for Kravtsov, who jogged off the court to a standing ovation from the Garden crowd. On the bench, his teammates gave him hero’s welcome. It was not the first time in his NBA career that Kravtsov received one for splitting a pair of foul shots.