Heroes and villains emerge during the course of the NBA playoffs. An unlikely villain has risen out of Cleveland, and it’s not the man in No. 23. Matthew Dellavedova has donned the proverbial black hat after being involved in three controversial plays that either involve an ejection or a serious injury. The rhetoric in the discussion revolves around a word that comes with varying connotations in sports: dirty. No one knows Dellavedova’s true intention, but the basketball community seems to soil these kinds of conversations.
Dellavedova grew up playing rugby in Australia. He’s paved his NBA path by playing with an aggression that can make opposing players uncomfortable. The “dirty” moniker first arose for Dellavedova when Taj Gibson was ejected from Game 5 of the Cavs-Bulls Semifinal series for kicking Delly. On the replay it showed Dellavedova leg-locked Gibson, which made it seem like Gibson kicked Dellavedova when he was actually just getting his leg loose.
The Bulls losing the pivotal Game 5 only increased the fervor among Bulls fans. Delly’s leg lock may get him a celebrity appearance on WWE, but it’s not a move that should be used on a basketball court.
During the Conference Finals, Delly’s pugnacity has bled into recklessness. He dived for a loose ball at Kyle Korver’s feet and rolled onto Korver’s leg, causing the Hawks sharpshooter to miss the remainder of the playoffs. Intentional or not, Dellavedova’s actions endangered Korver and cost him his season. Diving near a guy’s feet violates a certain etiquette. At the end of the day, every player on the court is there to make a living. Anybody who endangers another player — whether it’s by intention or not — is going to face some sort of retaliatory action from players.
That’s why it’s no surprise Dellavedova found himself in another controversial situation in the Conference Finals Sunday night. Delly got tangled up with Al Horford going after a rebound and nearly rolled up on Horford’s leg. Horford retaliated by dropping a half-hearted elbow at Dellavedova, for which he was ejected. You have to build up quite the reputation to get the cordial Al Horford to drop an elbow on you. The Hawks players were very upset about the Korver incident and were on the lookout for this kind of reckless play from the second-year Aussie. Again, Dellavedova wasn’t intentionally malicious on this play, but intention is irrelevant for the player who has to spend a couple of months in a leg cast.
Dellavedova shouldn’t be characterized as dirty, but he is a reckless player, which might be worse. He lacks a self-awareness when he’s making assertive plays, and especially when there’s a loose ball floating around another player’s feet. Then again, diving on loose balls, and generally out-hustling opponents is how Dellavedova has survived in the NBA without any elite skills on either end of the court. It’s also at least part of the reason why the Cavs are one win away from the NBA Finals. Delly’s similar to the aggressive guy in your pickup game who isn’t highly skilled, and can rub others the wrong way with overall intensity.
Al Horford may not be the last guy to drop an elbow on this unlikely villain.