BOSTON -- They say an NBA playoff series hasn't begun until someone wins on the opponent's home court. I have a little different spin on that adage: It hasn't begun until both coaches have been fined for criticizing the officials.
The first criterion already has been satisfied in the NBA Finals; the second is coming soon. Both coaches are officially in full-on gripe mode, complaining to the referees on every whistle, then bringing their lobbying to the interview room. In a tense, tight, thrilling series that looks to be headed back to Los Angeles for Games 6 and maybe even 7, the most talked about matchup hasn't been Ron Artest vs. Paul Pierce or Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett. The NBA should start charging admission to Doc Rivers' and Phil Jackson's press conferences. That's where the real action is.
It's sad, in a way, because that shouldn't be the story. The story should be the Celtics' defense on Kobe Bryant, Artest's defense on Pierce, Derek Fisher's tears and Ray Allen's historic swing from can't-miss sniper to futile weekend warrior. Yet even amid skyrocketing TV ratings and endless story lines, this is what the NBA has on its hands: An officiating controversy.
Unless you've been hiking in the Dakotas with no iPhone for the past four years, that is the last thing the NBA needs.
Of course, Jackson and Rivers aren't just talking about the referees. They're sending plays to the league office, pointing out calls that were wrong or unfair -- as is the case after every playoff game and most regular season games. Each coach accused the opponent on Wednesday of getting away with illegal screens in Game 3, and it's funny: They couldn't even agree on how many complaints they've sent to the league office. Jackson claimed his video department had lodged four complaints after each of the first two games.
"Eleven," Rivers said Wednesday, "if you really want to know."
For his part, Rivers would only say that he'd sent "a lot" of examples to Stu Jackson's office after Game 3. And he wouldn't say what specific points he was trying to make because -- get this -- "I don't want to posture."
Do the players and coaches complaining about the officiating in the first three games of the Finals have a point? As usual, that can't be a yes or no question. Only in the dark, conspiratorial corners of the Internet -- and in Tim Donaghy's imagination -- do allegations persist that NBA games are fixed and the referees are merely taking orders from David Stern, who as the CEO of a $4 billion industry clearly has nothing better to do than sit in his hotel room in his waffle-knit robe and e-mail Bennett Salvatore about which team he wants to win that night.
"Once you make a decision that a foul has occurred in front of you and you are not going to call it, then you are endangering our players. That's all," Stern said on Boston radio station WEEI. "And it's a hard job that these guys have. These games are particularly intense. The teams have enough time to figure out what they're going to do to the other. And they test the officials. They test them. They push and push and push. And if the officials don't step up, then you're going to have chaos and a game decided on [something] other than its merits. I recognized the risk that you are going to have a lot fouls called as well. But we've got very large bodies in small places, and it's our job, our duty to protect these players."
|Phil Jackson has never been shy when telling a ref how he feels about called fouls. (AP)|
Before Game 3, when Jackson already had publicly lodged his displeasure with the officiating against Fisher in his attempts to guard Allen, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson offered some plausible reasons for the more prominent whistle. Both teams are physical, which we knew going in. Both teams play a lot in the post. Both teams emphasize motion and ball reversal on offense. Jackson didn't say this, but both teams are notorious for setting illegal screens. Everybody who watches them knows this.
Beyond that, Stu Jackson said fouls called in the 2010 postseason were up roughly one per game over last year's playoffs. Jackson readily acknowledged the increase in free-throw attempts in the Finals, which through three games are up eight per game over the Magic-Lakers series. Given the physical play, the waves of big men coming off the bench and offensive style on both sides, that was to be expected.
But here's the deal: Without giving credence to the conspiracy theorists who think the referees are out to determine the outcome of games, the NBA has a perception problem. Watching each game closely, as I have, it has been impossible not to notice the frequent play stoppages and the lack of rhythm to the games. That's not to say the referees should avoid calling fouls just to make the game more aesthetically pleasing. But when Pierce is jockeying for position with Artest on the block -- as he was early in the fourth quarter Tuesday night -- don't call a foul. Let the big fellas work it out. Pierce was whistled for his fifth foul on such a play, which only fed Rivers' angst over having one of his Big Three in foul trouble for three straight games.
When Fisher is dribbling around 25 feet from the basket near the sideline, don't call a foul on Rajon Rondo for grazing his shoulder. That's what happened when Rondo was whistled for his fourth foul Tuesday night with 5:40 left in the game. It only feeds the conspiracy theory beast.
What's funny, too, is that Jackson and Rivers seem to be arguing for more fouls to be called when they bring up illegal screens, grabbing and dislodging defenders. That would be great. The NBA could just move the Finals to Las Vegas and finish the series during Summer League, because the games would still be going on in mid-July.
I won't pretend to have the equipment or qualifications to analyze every one of the 159 fouls called in this series -- and the potentially dozens of missed non-calls -- and report to you how many were correct and incorrect. Stu Jackson has that information, but he wouldn't give it to me before Game 3. Everybody knows -- even the players and coaches who are politicking -- that the NBA game is nearly impossible to officiate. Three fouls could be called, and three more could be missed, on every trip down the court.
What the players and coaches want is consistency, and they have every right to demand it. But they also have a responsibility, and Mike Freeman is right when he says they are not living up to it: If you want the referees to give you the freedom to manage the game and the contact without the whistle tweeting more than @russbengtson at SLAM Magazine, then the players and coaches have to quit whining and police themselves. Which brings us to the unexpected voice of reason on this day.
"I think the officials are fair," Artest said. "I mean, the first game you're like, 'OK, they called too many calls,' and you're a little bit upset. Then you see the other team and you see that they've got guys on the bench with four fouls over there. So I really have nothing to complain about. When I get two fouls [Tuesday night], I just go to the bench. When I foul out in Game 2, I just go to the bench. So what am I gonna complain about? Guys on the other team are fouling out, too.
"So just go out there and play," Artest said. "They're calling it fair. Now should they call [fewer] calls? If they do that for both teams, hey, that's fair. Whatever they do for both teams, there's really no reason to complain. Both teams are complaining, so obviously the officials are calling it fair."
Fair, but alas, never perfect.