How did Shaquille O'Neal avoid a hefty fine for specifically questioning the integrity of one of the game's top officials last week when Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was relieved of $50,000 earlier this month by the NBA just for criticizing game officials generally?

Why wasn't Kirk Hinrich suspended for a game in the playoffs for throwing his mouthpiece into the crowd during Game 1 of the Bulls' series with the Heat last weekend when Miami forward Udonis Haslem was suspended for a playoff game last year after . . . throwing his mouthpiece on the floor?

Explain how the league told players this season that referees would have more authority to run them for complaining excessively about calls while it suspends one of its best officials, Joey Crawford, after he threw a player out of the game for doing just that.

Inconsistency, thy name is the NBA disciplinary process.

It's easy to understand that each case has its own details, and that it would be next to impossible to hand out the same penalty in different instances because circumstances make such equal justice nearly impossible.

But it's hard to understand how the league can be so very sure that one guy did something with intent, or malice, and another guy gets the benefit of the doubt.

No one wants to be commissioner David Stern or league vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson in these cases; they usually make the disciplinary decisions.

And no matter which way they come down, they're assured of ticking someone off royally.

But the playoffs bring extra scrutiny to bear on everyone - coaches, players, owners. Shouldn't those who suspended the Mavericks' Jerry Stackhouse for a pivotal Game 5 of the Finals last year, after deeming a flagrant foul on O'Neal in Game 4 excessive, be just as accountable?

(Attention, aluminum-foil-helmet wearers: We're not suggesting any conspiracies here.) Shaq can pay most any fine out of petty cash; that's not the issue.

The issue is how the league manages to say it's emphasizing something yet does not follow up. Please, no e-mails about how your team is getting jobbed by the league because it's in a small market, or because the Stern-George Bodenheimer-Sam Walton-Suzanne Somers cabal is at work again to ensure that the Lakers win.)

O'Neal was upset with lead referee Eddie F. Rush in Game 1 of the Heat's series with the Bulls. O'Neal scored 14 points in the first 17 minutes, but then picked up his second and third fouls in less than three minutes and had to sit the rest of the half.

He finished with 19 points, but fouled out with 3 minutes, 19 seconds left after being called for a blocking foul.

"My intention was to come out and be myself, until Eddie Rush derailed me," said O'Neal, who continued to talk about all the "help" the Bulls received in Game 1 and how he was "very, very, very" frustrated by some of the calls against him.

Shaq does this all the time in the postseason. He has railed against Dikembe Mutombo, Vlade Divac, and all the other centers who have resorted to occasional flopping to get charging calls against him. (The only big man Shaq seemed to respect was Hakeem Olajuwon, whom he tried to get to Los Angeles late in the Dream's career.) But when you single out a ref by name, the league almost always lightens your wallet by a few thousand.

In this case, though, there was nothing.

"That's absolutely amazing," said Lamell McMorris, the spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association.

Yet Thomas, the Knicks' coach, got fined when he blasted officials - none by name - who he said were not giving Stephon Marbury respect.

"I see a lot of players drive to the basket and get fouled and go to the foul line, and I don't understand what he's done to receive the type of treatment he's getting and the lack of respect he's getting from the officials," Thomas said after New York lost to New Orleans on March 31.

"Moving forward, I would hope that he would be treated just like other star players are treated when they get fouled," Thomas said. And, to be fair, he kept at it for a while.

But how to explain Hinrich, who was, also to be fair, fined $25,000 by the league after tossing his mouthpiece? No one thinks a mouthpiece can hurt anyone. But Haslem was nonetheless suspended last year when the league believed he intentionally threw his mouthpiece toward the game official.

"It was three feet from him," Haslem said last week. "If I wanted to hit him, I would have hit him."

The ref saw it differently. He immediately threw Haslem out of the game.

The ref was Joey Crawford.

Which brings us to ... Joey Crawford, and his vacation for tossing Tim Duncan earlier this month.

Yes, Crawford had been warned about letting his pugnacious side overrule his reason, and about getting that boulder-size chip off his shoulder. But, we ask again: What purpose does it serve to have one of the game's best officials on the sideline during the biggest games of the year when he was doing exactly what the league said it would allow its referees to do this season - exercise "zero tolerance" of players who wouldn't let an argument go?

Just asking.