Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lakers can't handle "The Truth" or the refs

With Game Three of the NBA finals set to tip off shortly, I figured it's time to look back at Sunday's Game Two and what it can tell us about tonight's game. On Sunday, the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers again [Michael Grange, The Globe and Mail] to take a 2-0 lead in the series. Paul "The Truth" Pierce proved that there weren't too many lingering effects from his Game 1 injury, as he went off for 28 points, four rebounds and eight assists. Kevin Garnett recorded his typical double-double with 17 points and 14 boards, Ray Allen showed that he may still be a part of the "Mid-Sized Three" [credit to Matt McHale] with a 17-point performance, Rajon Rondo had a 16-assist night and Leon Powe, of all people, put up 21 points in 15 minutes.
Still, the first big story of the night was the Lakers' play down the stretch. They piled up 41 points in the fourth quarter [The Associated Press] and cut a 24-point lead with 8 minutes left down to just two before finally succumbing to the Celtics. As Bill Simmons writes, everyone wearing green and white was pretty terrified in the fourth.

"I wish I could explain what happened, but L.A.'s comeback defied explanation. The Celtics relaxed, the Lakers made a couple 3s, the Celtics missed a couple shots, Kobe shifted into 17th gear, the Lakers made a couple more 3s, and somewhere during this stretch, everyone went into "Oh no!" mode and my buddy Hench texted me, "Will this be the worst loss in Boston sports history?" (Yes, actually. And NBA history. And sports history.) Once Kobe willed himself to the line for two freebies with 38 seconds left, the Celtics were suddenly leading 104-102 with 38.7 seconds left, and my frozen father was only missing a coffin and a touch-up makeup job from a mortician."

Fortunately, that proved not to be necessary, as The Truth drove the basket on the next play, got fouled, converted his free throws and then blocked a Sasha Vujacic shot to seal the deal. However, the outcome is still somewhat in question thanks to the second big story of the night. You guessed it, the refs, who decided to award 38 free throws to Boston and just 10 to Los Angeles.

Think about those numbers for a second. L.A. eventually lost 108-102. That's a six-point gap. They converted every single one of their free throws in Game 2, so give them seven more shots and they win the game. The crazy thing is, if you add those seven free throws, they get 17: half the number Boston earned. Perfect free-throw shooting too much to assume? Well, they shot 75 per cent from the charity stripe in Game 1: let's apply those numbers. Making three out of every four, they would only need eight extra free throws to tie the game and send it to overtime (which they probably win, given how the teams played down the stretch). Or take away some of the fouls at the other end: the Celtics shot 71 per cent from the charity stripe, so if you take away 10 of their shots, they get seven less points and lose. Also, according to Stuart Scott on tonight's pre-game show, that's the fourth-fewest free throws ever for a team in Finals history.

Boston can bring out all the excuses they like about how the Lakers were playing irresponsibly while they did everything by the book, and some of them even contain grains of truth: certainly, the Celtics did seem to get fouled more often, and they deserved to get more calls, at least in my mind. That doesn't mean a 38 to 10 advantage, though! Even Simmons, the Boston fan's Boston fan, admits that it was way too excessive.

"For Game 2, [the Lakers] had a valid excuse … an unspeakable 38-10 free-throw disparity that I won't even attempt to defend," he writes. "At one point, my dad pointed to referee Bob Delaney, who was practically wearing a Celtics jersey and joked, 'I like that guy. I want him for every game!'"

There's some great quotes from "The Zen Master" Phil Jackson on the subject of the officiating. The start of his press conference is fantastic [transcript from Henry Abbott at TrueHoop]:

Q: "What are you most struck by, your rally at the end or your difficulty scoring points on them the first three quarters?"

A:(Laughing) "I'm more struck at the fact that Leon Powe gets more foul shots than our whole team does in 14 minutes of play. That's ridiculous. You can't play from a deficit like that that we had in that half, 19 to 2 in the first half in situations like that. I've never seen a game like that in all these years I've coached in The Finals. Unbelievable. ...
I think my players got fouled. I have no question about the fact that my players got fouled but didn't get to the line. Specifically I can enumerate a few things, but I'm not going to get into that.
I don't want to get into dispute with those situations."

He appeared to have recovered some of his Zen mojo later in the press conference, though, where Michael Grange picks up the story:

"While observers might want to credit the Celtics' determination to force the action to the rim – either through post-ups, offensive rebounds or dribble penetration – and thus draw fouls, Jackson believes his team has been victimized by some officials having visions, rather than simply calling what they see.

'The referees referee an illusion,' Jackson said. “Our guys look like maybe the ball was partially stripped when they were getting raked or whatever was happening, but it was in the crowd, so the referees let that type of thing go. So we have to create the spacing that gives the right impression, and that will have to get accomplished.'"

Hmm... that strikes me as somewhat worrying when the active coach with the most championships thinks he needs to change how his players' actions are perceived by the refs in order to get the calls they deserve. Refereeing illusions and that is all very deep, but essentially, his point is that they aren't calling the game according to what actually is happening, so he feels that he needs to get his team to create what the refs want to see in order to draw fouls. This just after the league vowed to crack down on flopping?

I'm not arguing that the officiating is solely to blame: there were many more problems with their play in Game 2, as Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times argues. My point is, though, especially with that comeback, a few calls here and there could have made a huge difference. Seven or eight calls may have determined the fate of a series and the eventual destination of the championship trophy.

In some ways, it would be even more worrying if those calls don't turn out to make the difference, though. I know that sounds ludicrous, but give me a second here. What we may have witnessed Sunday night was another example of the Stern Button [as always, credit to Matt McHale] in action. Now that Emperor David has his desired matchup of Celtics and Lakers after a phenomenal playoffs, what more could he want? Simple: for it to go six or seven games, bring in tons of TV revenue and ratings and jack the hype up even further. Many had predicted the Lakers to take the series before it began, and given their fantastic record at home and the 2-3-2 system employed in the playoffs, a split in the first two games means there's a good chance this is done in five. Instead, the chances of it going at least six now look very good.

Photo: The Stern Button (photo from Basketbawful)

The league isn't content to leave it at just "very good", though: consider tonight's officiating crew, which Matt McHale has a good take on in his Deadspin column. As he writes, "Anyway, the referees have already been assigned for tonight's game: Joey Crawford (whose reputation precedes him), Marc Wunderlich (who didn't call Derek Fisher jumping on Brent Barry) and the great Bennet Salvatore (who had been accused of favoring home teams and superstars). I guess Sasha Douchychick knew what he was talking about when he said: 'It will be a different story in L.A.'"

Now, this is what I find really troubling: the idea that rather than let the teams decide the series, the NBA would tailor its officials to throw games BOTH WAYS and ensure a longer series. What's worst about it though is that it makes a lot of sense, especially in light of the league's past officiating scandals under Stern. McHale figures these go all the way back to 1984, and not with laughable examples either. In that 1984 matchup between the Celtics and Lakers, there was enough evidence of tinkering that it ticked Larry Bird off. The Boston Globe ran a piece by Dan Shaughnessy entitled Bird: NBA Wanted 7, featuring the following quotes from Larry Legend:

"Stern told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series, that the league needed the money. When the commissioner makes a statement like that to a fan, you know it's going to be tough. When Stern makes a statement like that, things are going to happen. You just don't make statements like that and not expect anything out of it. He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that. The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish. There is no reason for me to lie. He said it. He's a man and he'll live up to it. He may say he said it in jest. But I'm out there trying to make a living and win a championship."

Hmm... a commissioner making ill-advised statements about the teams in his league and their playoff chances? Where have we seen that before? Oh, right, Lakers vs. Lakers. Failing that, maybe Lakers vs. Celtics, a series ABC executives were "collectively drooling over"? I'm sure the league would just hate for that to happen. These aren't isolated incidents either: some of the most prominent other examples include Lakers-Kings Game Six in 2002 [Ailene Voisin, Sacramento Bee], Dwayne Wade's free throws in the 2006 finals, Game Six of the Jazz-Bulls Finals in 1998, the Suns getting 64 foul shots in Game Seven of the 1993 Western Finals, the Suns-Spurs incident last year, and of course, Derek Fisher's flying elbow on Brent Barry this year.

Then, of course, you have Tim Donaghy, who just alleged through his lawyers that officials altered the outcome of the aforementioned Lakers-Kings game, and that a NBA executive told the officials to target Yao Ming in the 2005 Rockets-Mavericks series after Mark Cuban complained [more on that later]. I wish I could say that came as a huge surprise: the real tragedy is how believable these conspiracy theories are becoming, and how even if the NBA is eventually cleared, there will still be many of us with doubts. I was skeptical at first, but the evidence just keeps mounting. How can we know if we're watching a real sport, where everything depends on the players, or the WWE, where all outcomes are pre-picked according to what sells? I wish I could unequivocally declare that the NBA would never do such a thing, but I don't think I can any more.

Other related pieces:

- Bill Bridges on how the Celtics get away with more fouls because of the less-noticeable offences they commit [Forum Blue and Gold]
- Tim Keown of ESPN's Page 2 on how the Celtics' constant physical presence let them get away with more.

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