LeBron James was ejected from the LA Lakers' 121-116 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday after a clash that left Isaiah Stewart bleeding above the right eye sparking an on-court brawl.
James caught Stewart with a blow to the right side of his face as the two battled for position on a free throw early in the third quarter.
The two were immediately separated by teammates, but Stewart became enraged as blood began to stream down his face.
Making repeated attempts to get at James, Stewart drew multiple technical fouls and a subsequent ejection of his own as coaches and teammates desperately tried to hold him back.
Refereeing crew chief Scott Foster said Lakers star James was ejected for "unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulder" during the altercation with Detroit center Stewart.
"Upon the free throw the initial contact (was) deemed a loose ball foul by Isaiah Stewart and then a dead ball act by LeBron James, deemed a Flagrant Foul Penalty 2 for unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulder," Foster said during a postgame interview with The Athletic's James Edwards III.
"Isaiah got two technical fouls for multiple unsportsmanlike acts during the altercation," Foster said.
James' Flagrant 2 foul ended his night after his left elbow and hand appeared to make contact with Stewart's face when they were tangled up while boxing out for a rebound.
It marked only the second career ejection for James in 1,318 career regular-season games. He did not speak to the media after Sunday's game, but teammate Anthony Davis defended the strike as inadvertent.
"Everyone in the league knows LeBron isn't a dirty guy," said Davis, who scored 30 points with 10 rebounds as the Lakers outscored the Pistons by 17 following James' dismissal. "As soon as he did it, he looked back and told (Stewart), 'My bad. I didn't try to do it.' I don't know what (Stewart) tried to do. Nobody on our team, 1-15, was having it."
Detroit's center, who was called for a foul before James hit him, had to be held back more than once to keep him separated from the NBA superstar and was also ejected.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey said: "(Stewart) was upset. I told him, 'Don't let this define who you are. It doesn't define your game whatsoever.' I felt for the young man because he's such a competitor and he plays so hard. He's a great kid but he felt like he got cheap-shotted across his brow and on the street, it would be a different story."
"I don't think he should be facing anything from the league. He didn't get off the floor in time, and the league will have to decide about that, and I thought that was why he was ejected from the game. "
Russell Westbrook was also assessed a technical after the officials reviewed the play and the fallout from it, determining he was an "escalator," while there was pushing, shoving and trash talking.
All parties were relieved that an all-out melee wasn't witnessed as it was on November 19, 2004, the infamous 'Malice at the Palace' night when the Pistons and Indiana Pacers had a brawl that spilled into the stands.
Davis praised players, coaches and security for keeping the peace.
"Everybody did a great job trying to de-escalate the situation," he said. "You never want it to get to that point like 17 years ago."