King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA officials: They're insane-tastic! Plus: Clang! There's more than just defense to the Pistons-Pacers series.

By Salon Staff

Published May 27, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Would someone please explain to me exactly what is a foul in the NBA?

I don't mean what are the rules. I've read the rule book, I know the rules. What I mean is, what on earth are the referees doing? And why?

The latest example of NBA officiating inconsistency -- to use a kind word, rather than, say, incompetence or insanity -- came at the end of the Pistons 85-78 win over the Pacers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night.

Trailing by six with about 15 seconds left and hoping for a four-point play, Reggie Miller of the Pacers pump-faked Richard Hamilton into the air, then jumped into him as he launched a 3-point shot. No call. Miller complained to the refs, as is his wont.

"When Reggie Miller got Rip Hamilton up in the air and drew the contact I thought I was going to hear a whistle," said ESPN color man Doc Rivers as Miller argued fruitlessly. "What the officials are saying is that Rip came down straight and Reggie drew the contact. He [Miller] jumped into him."

That's right. But the thing is, precisely 100 percent of the time that play happens, a foul is called on the defender. Every single time. Except at the end of a playoff game, I guess. Because evidently the rules change at such a time.

The rule book is unambiguous to the point of absurdity. It should have been a foul on Miller: "If a defensive or offensive player has established a position on the floor and his opponent initiates contact that results in the dislodging of the opponent, a foul should be called IMMEDIATELY." (Emphasis in the original.)

The rule goes on: "A player is never permitted to move into the path of an opponent after the opponent has jumped into the air." And, after stating that a defender's legal position includes the space above him -- he can jump straight up, in other words -- it says, "Any player who conforms to the above is absolved from responsibility for any contact ... If contact occurs, the official must decide whether the contact is incidental or a foul has been committed."

Let's not even waste our time considering the merits of the cop-out "no-call." There was hard contact on the play. Considering that a touch on the forearm of a shooter is a foul, there's no arguing that a full-body collision was "incidental."

I suppose a no-call is ever so slightly better than penalizing the defender for a clear offensive foul, but why can't the refs just call it by the book? And even more than that, why do they call it one way all year, every year, and then suddenly, at the end of a playoff game, make up a whole new way of calling it?

There was a similarly nonsensical moment at the end of Game 2 of the Lakers-Timberwolves series Tuesday. Mark Madsen, working the old Hack-a-Shaq strategy to make Shaquille O'Neal shoot free throws, intentionally fouled Shaq. And then he fouled him again. And then he looked at the ref. Then he climbed him like a tree. Then he planted a flag on top of his head. Then he chopped him into little pieces with a meat cleaver.

No whistle.

Official Dan Crawford, a favorite of Mavs owner and ref gadfly Mark Cuban who's known for "letting 'em play" early in games and then clamping down, let 'em play. Or whatever you want to call what they were doing. Madsen and O'Neal both looked quizzically at Crawford as Madsen was sawing Shaq's leg off. Nothing.

Insane. Incomprehensible. If NBA officials didn't exist, they would have had to be invented -- by Franz Kafka.

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Pistons and Pacers are offensive, all right [PERMALINK]

It's not unreasonable to call the Pacers-Pistons series a clash of defensive titans, to marvel at the stingy, swarming, hustling play of both teams and their standouts, guys like Ben Wallace and Ron Artest. Sure.

But let's be honest. Great defense isn't all that's been going on. The series has featured some atrocious offense, some hideous shooting. I mean, what exactly is Artest up to on offense? How many wide-open layups and midrange jumpers can these two teams miss? Can't anybody on either side hit a damn shot?

The answers to these questions are who knows, a lot, and no, except Richard Hamilton.

If there's a significant difference between these teams so far, it's that the Pistons have Hamilton, a guy who can be counted on to hit an open shot if he gets one. The Pacers have no such person.

"We have too many shooters not to make shots," Jermaine O'Neal said after Game 3, in which the Pacers clanged it up there to the tune of 34.7 percent. Their regular-season percentage was 43.5.

Artest apparently agrees, and evidently thinks he's one of those good shooters, which explains his repeated hoisting of 3-pointers despite the lack of any evidence that this is a good idea. During the season Artest averaged 3.3 attempts per game from beyond the arc and hit 31 percent. In the playoffs he's averaging 4.1 attempts and 28.6 percent made. In this series he's averaging 4.7 attempts and is hitting them at a steaming 7.1 percent clip.

He's 1-for-14. Don Knotts was a better shot. The Artest plan would appear to be to shoot more as the likelihood of the ball going in the basket drops.

But then, can you blame him? Where is the Pacers' offense supposed to come from? Miller, who despite his picturesque game-winner in the opener is barely even an NBA player anymore? O'Neal? You'd think, but this series is exposing that for all his ability, he still has a lot to learn before becoming a truly elite low-post player.

His ponderous back-down moves might work against the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks of the world, but against the Pistons' front line, forget it. The next time the Pacers clear out for O'Neal and the seconds tick by as he thinks and thinks and then finally starts backing his man down, say out loud, "This won't be a basket." A few seconds later, you'll be feeling pretty smart.

The Pistons haven't been much better, but they can count on Hamilton hitting open jumpers -- which he can get off screens or off the dribble -- and they also have Ben Wallace's inside dominance. All he did in Game 3 was grab 16 rebounds, four on the offensive end, and hit seven of eight shots. Except for the shooting, that was roughly a normal game for him.

Watching this series reminds me of watching college basketball. It's tense, it has its exciting moments, particularly at the end, and it's sometimes fun to watch. But the difference between this and top-level hoops is the offensive ability.

At one point ESPN's Jim Gray asked Brian Shaw, in town scouting for the Lakers, if the Lakers and Timberwolves were "licking their chops" at the thought of playing either the Pistons or Pacers. Shaw was politic about it, saying, "Well, it's a different style of play. I think both teams would feel confident about their offense against these teams."

Translation: "Do you have a napkin, Jim? We're absolutely drooling over here."

Previous column: Payton and George doom the T-Wolves

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