Lakers forward Metta World Peace was suspended seven games by the NBA on Tuesday for throwing a vicious elbow at Oklahoma City's James Harden, meaning the Los Angeles starter likely will miss six playoff games.
World Peace was ejected from Sunday's game against the Thunder for striking Harden in the head, giving him a concussion. World Peace claimed the contact was an accidental, overzealous celebration of a dunk.
World Peace will miss the Lakers' season finale on Thursday at Sacramento and the next six games for which he is eligible. The playoffs open Saturday, and Los Angeles is likely to be the Western Conference's third seed.
Commissioner David Stern alluded to the former Ron Artest's history of on-court altercations in announcing the penalty in a statement.
"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."
The suspension is Artest's third career ban of at least seven games. He got an 86-game suspension in 2004 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.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team "accepted" the suspension.
"His most recent lapse in judgment is not to be condoned or accepted," Kupchak said after praising World Peace as largely a model citizen during his three years with the club.
"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."
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 Kobe Bryant acknowledged the obvious problem for the Lakers, who lose a starter and their defensive stopper right before the postseason.
"I saw what you guys saw," Bryant said before the suspension was announced. "It's hard to get into a guy's head and know exactly what happened in that situation. I haven't really spoken to him about it. You've really got to ask him."
Harden appears to be doing better, but still hasn't been cleared to return for the Thunder, who might have rested players anyway in their final two games while locked into the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
"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.
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 in Detroit. "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 explained the elbow as an accidentally overzealous celebration of his exciting dunk over Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant moments before, the same explanation he gave in a brief statement after the game.
"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 Lakers' opponents' 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."