"First of all, one of the worst officiated games I've ever seen in my 20 years associated with the NBA."
That's how Charles Barkley opened TNT's postgame show late Monday night, and he wasn't even talking about the game that may have been decided by two hideously bad calls, the one played in the wake of a $100,000 fine for complaining about the refs.
Barkley was talking about the Spurs' 126-115 overtime win over the Nuggets in Denver, giving San Antonio a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. He was overstating a bit as usual, I think. The game -- which was much more exciting than that score would lead you to believe -- had the usual assortment of "huh?" foul calls that make any NBA contest an exercise in randomness, but nothing extraordinary.
It was an earlier game, the Mavericks' 103-100 thriller over the Rockets in Dallas, that had the real stinkaroo calls, both going against Houston, and that was kind of funny because of the fine the league dropped on Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy just before the game for complaining about the officials. I guess you don't always get what you pay for.
Not that the two bad calls in the final minute necessarily cost the Rockets the game. They certainly didn't help the Rockets, but Houston can also look at a few too many missed free throws and a hideous sequence at the end of the first half when Jerry Stackhouse tied up Dikembe Mutombo after a rebound, won the jump ball despite giving up eight inches, then nailed a 3-pointer. Three points, as in the margin of victory.
In the other game Monday night, the Wizards beat the Bulls 106-99 in Washington to even that series 2-2.
Van Gundy had complained to reporters Sunday night that the refs were targeting Houston center Yao Ming, watching him more closely than other players for fouls following complaints about Yao by Mavs owner and referee gadfly Mark Cuban.
Van Gundy said a friend who is an official not working the playoffs had called and warned him that Yao's name had come up in an online evaluation by officiating supervisor Ronnie Nunn. The league denied that any directives were given about any player.
Commissioner David Stern slapped Van Gundy with the 100-large penalty, saying later that it's OK to complain to the league office about officiating, something that happens all the time, but it's not OK to publicly accuse the league of bias. The fine is the largest ever levied against a coach -- by a factor of two.
In fact, Cuban, the all-time champ in fines for statements about officiating, has complained about Yao. He told USA Today that the Mavs sent tapes to the league showing several plays where Yao should have been called for moving screens and wasn't, and that the league agreed the calls were missed. "So if anything, [Van Gundy] has it completely backward," Cuban said.
So what happens in Monday's game? The Rockets get hosed by a couple of monstrous calls in the last minute, and neither of them have anything to do with the big guy. I suppose you can look at the calls as further punishment for Van Gundy, payback of another sort, but that's a level of conspiracy I don't believe in. They were just blown calls.
Here's how it went down. The Mavs were leading 97-94 in a nip-and-tuck Game 5 with the series tied 2-2. As the clock clicked under a minute, Jason Terry of Dallas launched a 3-pointer from the left wing. It missed, and Jon Barry of the Rockets leaped high for the rebound, pulling it down between Stackhouse and Michael Finley of the Mavs just to the left of the basket.
Barry then went to pass to Tracy McGrady a few feet away, but hesitated, which gave Finley a chance to reach in from behind and knock the ball out of Barry's hands. Barry went to the floor after the loose ball and undercut Stackhouse, who fell over Barry just as he grabbed the ball. Foul on Barry.
Here's the problem: Finley was out of bounds when he knocked the ball out of Barry's hands. And it wasn't just a foot on the line kind of thing. He was completely out of bounds, both feet, and had been for several steps.
Barry was standing on the baseline and Finley was running toward him from the direction of the crowd. Do the math. There were hot dog vendors closer to the free-throw line than Finley was. Finley almost missed his chance to knock the ball away because he was passing a guy's change down the row.
It should have been Rockets ball. Instead, Stackhouse got two free throws, which he made for a 99-94 lead.
Three possessions later, the Dallas lead was 101-98 with 17.7 seconds left and the Mavs inbounding after a timeout. The pass came to Finley near the right corner, and McGrady and Scott Padgett moved in for a double-team trap. A moment before Padgett got to Finley, referee Joe Derosa whistled a foul -- on Padgett!
Derosa committed a cardinal sin of officiating, calling what he thought was going to happen rather than what he saw. Just terrible. Would the Rockets' trap of Finley have been successful? Probably not, but to lose the chance because of a phantom foul is just thoroughly annoying.
Finley made one free throw and the Mavericks held on, though Marquis Daniels almost gave the Rockets new life with an errant inbounds pass in the closing seconds.
Van Gundy, who seemed amused that his fine was a record-setter, stood by his comments and had no postgame complaints about the two bad calls in the final minute, honest misses just being a part of the business.
I'm not sure what's so terrible about his comments. Not only do I think it's reasonable to assume the refs look at Yao differently, I think it's reasonable for them to do so. Yao is different. There's nobody like him. The same goes for Shaquille O'Neal, whose game is different from Yao's but likewise unique. Officials have to pay special attention to them.
What calls the refs make after paying that special attention is where the arguments are, and depending what color jersey you're favoring you'll argue about either giant that he should be whistled for a foul on every play or that he is the victim of a foul on every play.
But if the league is saying its officiating personnel don't or can't or shouldn't say to each other, "Hey, watch Yao for moving screens," I think something's wrong.
This will all blow over soon enough. We have time to talk about it now because this is the first round. As Barkley also said Monday night, "I just can't wait till we get to the second round, and then we really get to analyze basketball. The first round is just the lightweights getting knocked out."
Speaking of which, I promised Monday I'd figure out the record of 8-seeds in actual playoff games in the 22 years of the current playoff format. I told you already that they're 2-42 in series, a winning percentage of .045, which I compared to the .109 winning percentage of the worst team of all time, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. But I realize that's not quite fair.
"Please," wrote reader Eric Baumgartner, "respect the putridity of 1972-73!"
OK, I have to relent. Since the 16-team playoff format was introduced in 1984, No. 8s have gone 38-136 in games against No. 1s. That's a winning percentage of .218, which is bad, putridly bad, but not in the historically significant territory of Fred Carter, Manny Leaks, Leroy Ellis and the '72-73 Sixers.
A .218 winning percentage projects out to 18 wins in a regular season, so when you tune in to an 8-vs.-1 game you're looking at the underdog winning about as often as this year's Charlotte Bobcats or New Orleans Hornets did. I don't know how often you tuned in the Bobcats or Hornets this year hoping to be thrilled and delighted.
This year is the fifth out of 22 in which the two 8-seeds have failed to win a single game. It's the 13th time in 22 years that the two 8-seeds have failed to win more than one game between them.
Barkley gives lightweights a bad name.
Previous column: Two 8s bite the dust
- - - - - - - - - - - -