Friday, June 13, 2008

NBA: Celtics are in the House, but Donaghy's shadow still lurks

Photo: Eddie House celebrates after the Celtics' win Thursday. [Photo from TrueHoop]

That was one of the craziest games I've ever seen last night. It looked to be all over at the end of the first quarter after the Lakers jumped out to a crazy 35-14 lead without Kobe Bryant even making a field goal, and things only got worse for the Celtics. This is possibly the only game I've ever seen where the announcers start predicting the win midway through the first. The Lakers justified their praise for a while, though, as it was 45-21 partway through the second, and 58-40 at the half.

Strangely enough, what probably turned the tide for the Celtics was an injury to one of their players. After Rajon Rondo proved utterly ineffective, Kendrick Perkins hurt his shoulder, which caused Doc Rivers to go to the smaller pairing of James Posey and Eddie House to replace them. House and Posey are both effective outside shooters, something that can rarely be said for either Perkins or Rondo. The substitution forced Bryant to choose between guarding House and helping the other Lakers. At first, Bryant doubled off House the way he had off of Rondo. House missed his first couple of open looks, but then started dropping them in. As a result, Bryant shifted back to guarding him, and Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett started making their shots. On the defensive end, Pierce switched to Bryant and absolutely shut him down.

Boston still had a long way to go, but they were pouring it on and the Lakers were starting to crack under the pressure. L.A. fought back down the stretch, but they couldn't handle the Celtics with all five guys on the floor draining shots. In the end, Boston prevailed 97-91, completing the biggest comeback since at least 1971 and perhaps the biggest ever [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail]. It was a huge team effort: Pierce had 20 points, seven assists and four boards, Garnett contributed 16 points and 11 rebounds, Ray Allen rediscovered his jump shot and knocked down 19 points while grabbing nine rebounds, Posey kicked in 18 points from the bench and House added 11 points and four rebounds while putting up a game-high +20 rating.

That was definitely one of the greatest NBA games I've seen, and the impressive thing was how it improved as it went on. The first quarter seemed so predictable, so one-sided: Boston would again lose on the road, the series would be even, and we'd probably be set for a long Finals.

I guess it's proof that the NBA can't always be predictable: in fact, the refs, probably on orders from on high to show neutrality in the wake of the new Donaghy revelations, did just that. The foul shots awarded wound up 29-28 Lakers, vastly different than the 38-10 Boston stat in Game Two, the 34-22 Lakers balance in Game Three or the 35-28 Boston discrepancy in Game One.

Now, certainly, plenty of people have taken that as an an excuse to discredit Donaghy's claims. To them, I have a couple of points to make. First, do you really think the NBA would try anything fishy right after a press conference decrying that they ever do anything of the like? Every journalist, blogger and fan in the world was watching this game under a microscope. In fact, if anything, the league probably used the Stern button [credit to Matt McHale, as always] to make sure the totals were lining up precisely.

Secondly, there's always non-interference by interference. Remember Newton's Third Law? "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Anyone who's ever taken physics knows that a body that isn't accelerating either has no force acting on it or two equally balanced forces. Think two equally strong guys pushing a rock from opposite sides: they're both interfering with it, but their interference cancels out, so it's like there's no outside force on the rock at all.

Bringing this back to basketball: it's highly unusual that team foul totals wind up within one. However, perhaps it isn't as odd when you consider the referees involved. Look at this pre-game post by FanHouse's Brett Edwards, breaking down the game not by player matchups, or coaching matchups, but by the officiating assignments! Where else but the NBA?

Anyway, Edwards referenced an interesting website that tracks officials' records "against the spread" in favour of the home team. Two of the officials picked for Game 4, Joe DeRosa and Tom Washington, were the first and fourth-biggest "homers" respectively by this site []'s calculations, while the third, crew chief Steve Javie, was one of the biggest "anti-homers", or someone whose road teams consistently outperform their expectations. Add that up, and Edwards comes to the conclusion that it's pretty even. Hmmm... an even refereeing matchup producing almost a perfectly even distribution of fouls, just when the league's in the spotlight for foul discrepancies? Move along, nothing to see here.

Now, see, this is the crux of the NBA problem. I know that sounds perhaps convoluted, but you can't rule it out. It could just be that the officials acted normally, there were no problems and the game was won on the court. Think about the people involved, though, in particular David Stern. Stern strikes me as a bit of a control freak with a ridiculous amount of power. When his league comes under fire for this kind of incident, to the degree that he feels it's necessary to hold a pre-game press conference dealing specifically with the Donaghy allegations, do you think he's just going to trust that his referees will call everything fairly under such an intense microscope, or do you think he'll make sure they get the message to call the game in such a way that no one can question the officiating? I know where my money would go.

Anyways, consider the differentials from this series. +7 in Game One, +28 in Game Two, +12 in Game Three, all for the home team. The Lakers wound up losing by six: if they get even the marginal foul difference awarded to the home team in Game One, they have a chance to win this one. If they get the wider differentials awarded in Game Two or Game Three and hit them at the 75% rate they made during the match, they win.

This is the real tragedy of the Donaghy scandal: it doesn't permit you to sit there and just enjoy a great comeback or a quality win. You sit there wondering if the game's real or if it's fixed, and you really can't know for sure either way. I'd love to believe that the Celtics won due to great contributions from bench guys like House and Posey, excellent defence and solid production from their stars, and this probably is what actually happened. However, I can't dismiss the possibility that they merely played the Lakers to a draw, and their win was due to the sudden absence of the home-court advantage that's been so prevalent in these playoffs. The Donaghy scandal, and the latest accusations to come out of it, are like finding a worm in one apple in a bushel: all the other ones may be perfectly good, but you're awfully hesitant to take a bite.

- Mike has a good take on the game [The view from the Woods].
- Neate's thoughts over at Out of Left Field.
- A great piece on the Donaghy scandal at Sports on My Mind: I'll have more on that one later.
- Matt McHale, excellent as always, weighs in at Basketbawful and Deadspin.
- Henry Abbott has a great take on House's contributions [TrueHoop].
- Michael Grange of The Globe and Mail weighs in [From Deep].
- Bill Simmons has a marvellous running diary [ESPN].
- Will Leitch has a hilarious take on Kobe Bryant's post-game comments [Deadspin].

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:53 PM

    The problem is that so many of us have believed the refs were shady for years. Even though Donaghy's a questionable source, it lends credibility to the questions I have about the "Phantom Fouls" of the Mavs/Heat Finals two years ago: