First of all, the officials did not cost the Lakers Game 5. But they’re far too prevalent.
After all the whistles and judgment calls, the Lakers had the scenario any team would love: The ball in Kobe Bryant’s hands and a chance to have the best clutch player in the NBA give them a 3-2 lead in the conference finals.
He missed his shot, after Mike Bibby had made his seconds earlier (after Chris Webber appeared to knock a ball out of bounds) and the Sacramento Kings had a 92-91 victory in a game that was every bit as tense and dramatic as expected.
The only problem with this game--the flaw with this series--is that it doesn’t stop there. There’s a team trying to wring every last bit of its championship mettle playing an ascending, exciting squad
“Man, the officiating tonight was ... " said a man on his way out of Arco Arena.
And he was a King fan.
Laker Coach Phil Jackson’s postgame address to the media lasted all of eight seconds before he got to the officiating.
After talking about the exciting finish and congratulating the Kings, Jackson said: “I thought Kobe got fouled on the last play. Obviously we didn’t get the call.”
Bryant had the ball on the right side, isolated against Bobby Jackson. He made his move, he and Jackson bumped and both lost their balance. Jackson grabbed Bryant’s jersey as he stumbled backward, Bryant went to recover the ball and then launched a jump shot that missed.
“You can’t pull a guy’s shirt off and it not be a foul,” forward Rick Fox said. “But in this league, a lot of that is left alone down the stretch. As a defensive player, I prefer it to be left alone. Usually you let it go, let the two guys decide it.”
It has been the players deciding it at the end, but the tone of the rest of the game is set by the officiating.
When the Kings lost Game 4, Sacramento Coach Rick Adelman’s opening comments quickly turned to the physical play he thought the Lakers got away with, and he officially dubbed it his “sour grapes.”
And so it goes.
If the players and coaches aren’t complaining postgame about the officiating, they’re doing it on the off days, trying to influence the next game.
“It’s as old as the game itself,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who attended the game. “It’s not even boring. It’s kind of interesting to see what new wrinkles can be put on, or what the spin can be.”
This is interesting? Now that’s spin.
It’s a serious problem when the officiating is so unpredictable that coaches are basing their strategies around it, as Jackson indicated Monday when he said he would wait to see how tightly Game 5 was called before he decided whether or not to have Bryant defend Bibby.
It’s a problem when Shaquille O’Neal is turned into a timid kitten, hesitant to move toward the basket on offense or attack the ball on defense because he doesn’t know if he will be called for a foul.
He was called for six fouls on Tuesday night, sending him to the bench for good with 3:22 left in the game.
O’Neal easily committed six fouls in the game, but not necessarily on all the occasions the officials thought.
There’s still no way to tell what they’re going to call and what they aren’t going to call, and never are they more inconsistent than when O’Neal is involved.
In the first half, O’Neal leaned into Divac, Divac fell down. O’Neal’s been called for an offensive foul on that throughout the series, but this time a reach-in foul was called on Divac. In the third quarter, on an almost identical play, no foul called at all. With the lane cleared, O’Neal cocked back and hammered down a dunk.
O’Neal got personal foul No. 3 simply because he has size-22 shoes. Doug Christie stepped on one of them as he dribbled by, he stumbled and the whistle blew.
Near the end of the third quarter, Webber drove down the lane and was bumped by O’Neal in midair. No call.
In the fourth, Divac and O’Neal made the exact same collision, and this time there was a call--O’Neal’s fifth. He received his sixth when Bibby came through the lane, O’Neal rode him with his arm--the same thing happened with players more close in size throughout the game with nothing called-- and Bibby stumbled.
Bryant caught Doug Christie in the nose with an elbow in Game 1 and Christie was called for a foul. The same play happened in Game 5 and this time it was Bryant who was called.
“It’s been consistent,” Fox said sarcastically. “They’ve been consistently shooting about 35 free throws a game and we’ve been shooting about 18. It’s been consistent.”
It’s not all the officials’ fault. Sacramento has been much more aggressive going toward the basket and forcing the issue, especially going at O’Neal
But at the other end, O’Neal shot only one free throw in Game 5.
“You mean to tell me Vlade Divac is on Shaquille O’Neal and in the fourth quarter he has two fouls and he’s been guarding him the whole game?” Samaki Walker said.
What’s to be done? Instant replay can help at times, such as Walker’s shot at the end of the first half in Game 4 that replays and Stern said should not have counted. The league is moving toward using replays in limited situations.
“There are certain things that are too hard for the human eye to see,” Stern said.
It can’t be used for every charge/block, but they can use common sense, and the attitude of the late, great official Earl Strom: The overriding decision should be the impact of the play. And in this situation, the impact on the playoffs.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: