One of the biggest problems the NBA faces is how much control its officials have over playoff games.
Even before the Tim Donaghy scandal of last year, when it came out that he had been manipulating point spreads because he was a gambling addict who was pretty much owned by the mob, NBA refs have always been suspected of tailoring their officiating style depending on who was playing and where.
After Games One and Two of the Lakers/Jazz series were called much like regular season games (meaning touch fouls were called, greatly favoring the Lakers’ style of play), the officiating changed last night in the first game in Energy Solutions Arena (quite possibly the most depressing name a sports facility has ever had, besides when the Astros played in Enron Field, of course).
Whenever Dick Bavetta is the lead official in the playoffs, the calls seem to go in favor of the team that is behind in the series, especially if that team is at home. Last night was a perfect example. While the Lakers seemed to get a majority of the calls in the first two contests at Staples, the Jazz were able to get away with roughing up the Lakers forwards like the game was a heavy metal mosh pit. In the process we saw Pau Gasol’s only weakness as a Laker thus far, his penchant for playing a much more finesse style than brutes like Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap.
Showing it’s a much different game when Boozer, Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur are in foul trouble in the fourth quarter brings up the question: why are games officiated so differently depending on circumstance in the NBA? While NFL officials are generally incompetent, their incompetence doesn’t seem to sway based on home field advantage or who the marquee team du jour may be. In the NFL, officials are almost like hapless substitute teachers trying in vain to control a classroom full of unruly students. By contrast, NBA refs are film directors, shaping the story and changing the game seemingly based on whim and artistic license.
Other points from Utah’s win:
— I love listening to Hubie Brown as the color commentator because while he sounds almost like a professor of basketball, he is far from pompous … a rarity among older color guys (I’m looking at you, Tim McCarver … you too, Billy Packer). He has two things he always goes back to as keys to the game: “length” and “high percentage shot,” a phrase he probably repeated roughly 48 times last night. But my favorite thing was the way he pronounces “Gasol.” Even though he coached Gasol for years in Memphis, and as far as I know in Spanish the letter “o” is pronounced “oh,” it sounds like Hubie thinks Pau’s last name rhymes with that university in Philadelphia, “La Salle.” Maybe Pau doesn’t say anything to Hubie because they were “pals” in Memphis.
— Now that Vlade Divac no longer drags shuffles up and down the floor in NBA arenas, it seemed that the league was devoid of any habitual smokers (cigarettes, of course — NBA players smoke so much weed there could be a franchise in Humboldt County and players would fight each other to play there). After watching Okur last night, I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m just stereotyping Eastern Europeans, but Okur (who’s Turkish, so he probably prefers Camels) has that same hunched over, “I can’t wait until the next stoppage in play” look throughout the game. He’s skilled like Vlade, but much like the great bearded Serb never seems to run much faster than Bengie Molina with a groin pull.
— The fact that the Lakers only lost by five was a good sign for Los Angeles, for two reasons. First, Kobe didn’t really even try to score in the first half, which sort of backfired. Not only is Kobe the Lakers best scorer obviously, but he also has the best matchup advantage of any Laker due to both Utah’s lack of perimeter defenders and their wealth of interior strength. Also, the Lakers just played terribly, especially Jordan Farmar (who’s had an awful series so far, getting destroyed by Deron Williams repeatedly off the dribble when he’s not clanking three’s), Luke Walton (who couldn’t hold onto the ball at all in the fourth quarter, causing Kobe to shoot him dirty looks about eight times in the final two minutes) and to a lesser extent Lamar Odom and Gasol, who struggled with Utah’s rough-and-tumble defense. If the Lakers keep their turnovers down, they shouldn’t lose a game the rest of the series, regardless of who the officials are.