Refs having wrong kind of impact
LOS ANGELES -- Wednesday night I wrote that the Nuggets missed a great opportunity to steal a game in Staples Center, and they certainly believed that.
But they also believed one other thing, even if most of them were unwilling to risk a $25,000 fine by communicating it -- that the officiating was a major factor in their defeat, and that Phil Jackson's criticism of the refs after L.A.'s loss in Game 4 was a major factor in the officiating. One Nugget, who understandably didn't want to be identified, went so far as to claim Jackson got a fantastic return on his $25,000 investment.
Nuggets coach George Karl was the most up-front about it.
"I thought they got the benefit of the whistle," he said. "It just seems very frustrating for me to sit here like it's the gamesmanship in the press conference on refereeing.
"I'm not going to get into [that] game. Phil is so much better at it than I am."
Nonetheless, he got into that game.
"[Carmelo Anthony] got beat up tonight," Karl said. "And the same type of attitude and actions that we had that got us to the rim and got us a lot of easy baskets. Tonight they defended better, at least from the standpoint of the scoreboard. The stat sheet says they defended better. They blocked more shots. We didn't get as many paint points. But I'm not sure that's the case."
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I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to read between the lines here -- he thought the plays that were fouls in the first four games weren't fouls Wednesday.
"Every player in my locker room is frustrated," Karl said. "Gasol goes after at least 20 jump shots, 20 shots to the rim, and gets one foul; our big guys have 16. Nene has six fouls; three or four of them don't exist."
Karl was right about the frustration. It wasn't hard getting his players to make their feelings clear without going over the, er, fine line that could cost them $25,000.
"I'm not going to say anything," Kenyon Martin said when I asked him about the whistles. "If I get started I won't stop."
"Save your money, kid," yelled Chauncey Billups across the room, before adding a sarcastic, "Where amazing happens."
Added Linas Kleiza, who also had to suffer the indignity of serial mispronouncements of his name by the Lakers' PA announcer: "I wish I could talk, but I enjoy having my money in the bank."
For his part, Jackson wasn't exactly sheepish about the idea that he'd affected the officiating with his comments.
"I'm a gardener," he said before the game. "I like planting seeds, constantly."
We don't know whether the seed was planted with the refs, but it certainly seemed like it was planted in the heads of the Nuggets.
OK, enough about their opinions. Let me tell you what I saw.
I saw a game that was officiated very tightly by one man (Tom Washington) and extremely loosely by the other two (Monty McCutchen and Ron Garretson). Washington in particular made two calls that sent the Nuggets ballistic -- the fifth foul on Nene for a hand-slap on Pau Gasol and a foul on Billups defending the post when it appeared the Lakers had thrown the ball out of bounds.
But the other part of the equation was how much contact the other zebras allowed around the basket. It wasn't one-sided, in my estimation. In the first half, Gasol hacked Martin so hard that I heard the slap from my seat six rows up in the opposite corner. Later, Nene had a chance at a dunk thwarted by a fairly obvious arm chop that went uncalled, sending the Denver bench into hysterics.
However, when the Lakers went at my basket in the second half, I saw much of the same. Kobe Bryant had several drives to the rim with lots of contact and no whistle. And Martin got his payback for the Gasol call in the first half, absolutely creaming him on a late-game post-up without any foul.
What's frustrating for the Nuggets, however, is that a let-'em-play officiating style is unquestionably to the Lakers' advantage. For starters, Denver goes to the basket more than the Lakers do, so any night when the refs are calling lots of fouls is bound to be more to their benefit.
"We attacked the basket a lot of times and didn't get to the free-throw line," was Billups' diplomatic way of putting it.
Second, the Nuggets have superior depth, particularly in the frontcourt, where Gasol has had to play virtually the entire game every night. For that reason, fouls on the Lakers' frontcourt have a greater impact than those against the Nuggets.
So if you look at the foul story, you can see that it worked to L.A.'s benefit Wednesday night. Only 52 fouls were called, tying Game 1 for the fewest in the series, and the 65 total free-throw attempts were also the lowest since Game 1. They were actually pretty evenly distributed -- 30 for Denver, 35 for L.A., and four of those 35 came in the final minute, when Denver had to foul.
The personal-foul count favored L.A., 30-22, including 14-3 in the fourth quarter. But even then I'm not sure the issue was the refs' calling things for the Lakers, as much it was that they ran it in a way that happened to favor L.A. -- much as the tight whistle in the second half of Game 2 favored Denver.
Players talk all the time about adjusting to the officiating, and I think this was the real area where the Nuggets had problems. Granted, it was a difficult adjustment because Washington was calling everything while the others were swallowing their whistles.
But in Game 2 it was Billups who took advantage, going to the basket on nearly every play in the second half when he realized the refs were calling any contact; he ended up with 16 free-throw attempts. Wednesday night the Nuggets' bigs kept trying to finish at the rim, often when kick-outs to shooters were available, instead of adjusting to the whistles.
Nonetheless, Game 5 does underscore a big problem for the league; it's just a different problem than a lot of people think. It wasn't that the zebras were part of some grand pro-Lakers conspiracy. (Seriously, people, you need to stop with this.) And I doubt that the refs were reacting to Jackson's comments to the media -- somehow I don't think Tom Washington picked up a USA Today at his hotel Thursday morning and thought, "Man, I better give Phil some calls tonight."
No, the problem is a more basic one: consistency. If players don't know what a foul is from night to night or quarter to quarter, it's inevitable that they're going to be upset, and equally inevitable that fans are going to start flinging conspiracy theories at the wall to explain what they're seeing. In a perfect world, the words "adjusting to the officiating" would never have to be mentioned.
Whether I've been watching in person or on TV, it's hard not to notice that the overall quality of the officiating is worse than it was, say, four or five years ago, and that the night-to-night consistency has been erratic as well. I'm not sure it has much impact on the league's popularity -- for comparison, soccer refs tend to be horrid, and it's still the most popular sport in the world -- but it definitely has an impact on the game outcomes.
And as the series moves to Denver for Game 6, that's likely to continue. With a tight whistle so clearly favoring the Nuggets and a loose one so obviously giving L.A. an advantage, it seems almost inevitable that the officiating will again be a huge story.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.