THE BOSTONCELTICS missed an excellent opportunity to win their 17th championship onSunday night in what would've been the most deliciously satisfying of venues,Staples Center in Los Angeles. And so, though both history and math werecompellingly on Boston's side, there remained a sliver of doubt at week's endthat the Celtics, leading the series 3--2, would bring home their first titlesince 1986, even with Games 6 and 7 scheduled for TD Banknorth Garden onTuesday and Thursday. ¬∂ Then again, the Celtics' ancient rival, the Los AngelesLakers, hardly had the look of champions. Kobe Bryant made the big play in theLakers' 103--98 Game 5 win—a steal with 40 seconds left and a subsequent dunkthat gave L.A. a 99--95 lead—but he hit only three of his final 16 shots, andhe and his mates showed a marked proclivity for blowing leads. Without a suddentransformation, the Lake Show did not appear to be a strong enough team tobreak precedent and become the first club to win an NBA championship from a3--1 deficit.
This is an article from the June 23, 2008 issue
The only thingsure about the second week of these Finals was that the league office hadbreathed (might still be breathing, in fact) a monumental sigh of relief thatGames 4 and 5 unfolded with no officiating controversy. For Game 5 the leagueoffice decided to reprise The Defiant Ones, including veteran ref Dick Bavettain the three-man crew even though Bavetta had emerged as one of the centralfigures in a controversy initiated by disgraced ref Tim Donaghy, who isawaiting sentencing on wire fraud and gambling charges.
By anyone'saccount, Bavetta and the other officials, Scott Foster and Ken Mauer, called anexcellent game. But had Bavetta been involved in a close call late,particularly one that favored the host Lakers, he would have become the nextday's story. It seemed like a major risk, even if the NBA wanted to extend ametaphorical middle finger to the whole mess. Which seemed to be the case,since commissioner David Stern not only defended the decision but also seemedto be spoiling for a fight about it.
"Why shouldwe let an indicted felon dictate what we do with our referees?" he saidbefore Game 5 when asked about the Bavetta decision. "Why should we letrumormongers who write stories about Donaghy decide who should ref?" Byrumormongers Stern meant the assembled press, which has reported on the Donaghystory, probably because it falls into that category known as"news."
Donaghy'sallegations became public on June 10, the morning of Game 3 in L.A. A filingmade in U.S. district court in Brooklyn by Donaghy's lawyer, John Lauro,outlined several claims, among them Donaghy's contention that refsintentionally made calls to help a team known for drawing higher ratings win aplayoff game and that refs were instructed by the league office not to calltechnical fouls on certain star players because "doing so would hurt ticketsales and television ratings." The bombshell had particular resonance inL.A., since it was clear from other details in the filing that the playoff gamein question was Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference final between the Lakersand the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. Bavetta was one of the refs forthat game. Helped by the 27 free throws it shot in the fourth quarter, L.A. won106--102. The Lakers then beat the shell-shocked Kings 112--106 in Game 7 andwent on to sweep the New Jersey Nets for their third straight championship.
But thankfullythe refs were not the story of Games 4 and 5 last week; the basketball was. TheCeltics overcame a 24-point deficit in Game 4 to win 97--91; in Game 5 Bostondug out of a 19-point hole to tie the game in the middle of the fourth quarterbut Los Angeles held on for the victory.
Celtics forwardKevin Garnett would like to forget the three free throws and two clear tip-inshe missed down the stretch on Sunday. As he always does, KG played an energeticgame on the boards (seven offensive and seven defensive rebounds) but didlittle to change his reputation as a guy who can go MIA in the clutch. "Ithought it was trash," he said of his performance. "I played likegarbage." That's double figures in self-flagellation. Wasted in the losswas the 38-point effort of Paul Pierce, who, had Boston been able to close out,would've walked away with the Finals MVP award and fulfilled a dream of winninga championship in the city where he had been a high school star.
STERN TWICEconvened press conferences in L.A. to address the Donaghy filing, his voicedripping with sarcasm as he described his erstwhile employee as an"admitted felon." The commissioner also defended his stable of refereesas "the most measured and metricized group of employees in the world,"given that every call is scrutinized by the league office. But Stern had aharder time explaining why so many fans—91%, according to a New York Daily Newsonline poll taken last week—plug into the notion that refs deliberatelyinfluence games. "It's an interesting archaeological problem," Sternsaid, sighing heavily. What he meant by archaeological is that the perceptionhas been around since Red Auerbach was littering the Boston Garden parquet withcigar ashes.
Indeed, fans havelong been conditioned to assume, among other things, that whistles will favorthe home team; that superstars will get away with more than ordinary mortals;that games will be called differently in the last two minutes; and that callswill be adjusted in subsequent playoff games in response to complaints. In Game2 at TD Banknorth Garden, for example, the Celtics (108--102 winners) shot 38free throws to the Lakers' 10, prompting L.A. coach Phil Jackson to commentthat the officials were reffing "an illusion." In Game 3 at StaplesCenter, Bryant shot eight free throws in the first seven minutes and the Lakerstook 34 for the game, 12 more than the Celtics. L.A. won 87--81.
Why is there moreconcern about the motives of NBA refs than of officials in other sports? Let'sbegin with the fact that, next to stable cleaner at a horse track and generalmanager of the Los Angeles Clippers, NBA referees have perhaps the toughest jobin sports. The game is played on a 94-by-50-foot court whose dimensions haven'tchanged in a century even though players have gotten much larger and quickerand now bang into each other like heated molecules on almost everypossession.
The refs in Game5 called 56 fouls (evenly divided between the teams, if you're scoring at home)and three technicals. They made about a dozen other calls for variousviolations such as traveling. On a similar number of occasions they had toinstantly judge which player knocked the ball out-of-bounds, a call that somerefs will tell you is their toughest. And there's no way to figure out how manytimes the refs decided not to make a call. Thirty? Sixty?
It's conceivable,then, that the average ref in the average game has to make 100 decisions on thefly. By contrast, the only way to determine if a third-base umpire is sentientis to stick a mirror next to his mouth to see if he's breathing.
That said, NBArefs do make some extraordinarily dumb calls and no-calls. While a minor bit ofjostling 30 feet away from the ball can result in a foul, Garnett (to singleout just one superstar) is allowed to take an extra little step or half step onvirtually every play, something for which a bench warmer would be whistledimmediately. In a key down-the-stretch play in Game 3, the Lakers' VladimirRadmanovic took three giant steps as he went in for a dunk but was not calledfor traveling. Those are precisely the kinds of plays that drive your UncleHarry nuts—In my day you couldn't get away with that!—and lead him to concludethat virtually every whistle is suspect.
Then, too, somerefs are too close to players and coaches—it is common for refs to solicitsigned sneakers and other memorabilia. One NBA coach told SI last week that heonce heard Michael Jordan unleash a stream of f bombs in the direction of areferee. The ref did not hit Jordan with a technical foul or say anything tohim until after the game, when he asked, "Michael, can I have yoursneakers?" Indeed, some refs act like puppies around the superstars, eagerto be a part, however peripheral, of an exclusive posse.
BUT IF calls areshaded toward superstars and superteams, is that a conspiracy or just humannature? Is anything that Donaghy says believable?
First of all, itis implausible that Stern, by anyone's account one of the smartestcommissioners in the history of sports, would risk bringing down the wholeenterprise by ordering refs to fix games. But given that the NBA, probably morethan any other sport, benefits from having certain matchups in the Finals(Lakers-Celtics is a clear ratings booster; San Antonio Spurs--ClevelandCavaliers in 2007 was not), it is not implausible that some refs might receivea subtle message. More to the point, the public believes it's not implausible.Jackson suggested during the Finals that referees "be under a separateentity," a notion Stern dismissed with extreme prejudice. But the leagueshould consider putting referee review, now handled internally, in the hands ofan outside agency. That might increase public belief in the integrity of theproduct.
Nothing will dothat as well, though, as games like the one on Sunday night. Though it had itschippy moments—serial nice guys Derek Fisher of the Lakers and Ray Allen of theCeltics were hit with a double technical for jawing at each other in the secondquarter—the game never got out of hand. It was played hard but fairly andrefereed well, as the combatants later acknowledged. Garnett said he got infoul trouble partly because of needless overaggression; Rivers agreed. Pierceconceded that Bryant never touched him when he reached around and flicked theball away, the game's decisive moment. "It was just a great defensiveplay," said Pierce.
In short, an airof civility reigned despite the high stakes. Perhaps it was because the Celticswere heading for the safe harbor of Boston, and the Lakers felt good abouthaving defended their manhood at home. Or perhaps it was something else, therealization that the integrity of the league had been brought into question andit was time to close ranks. That could change in an instant, of course. Achampionship was on the line in Beantown, and Boston fans are not celebratedfor their civility.
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Jack McCallum, Ian Thomsen, Marty Burns and ChrisMannix are on hand in Boston for the celebration as a new champion iscrowned.