Lakers beat Celtics: Was the fix in again?

It's a big problem for the NBA that disgraced ex-ref Tim Donaghy's allegations of rigged games in the '02 and '05 playoffs ring true.

Published June 11, 2008 10:15AM (EDT)

It's a good thing the NBA put the order in for a Los Angeles Lakers win again Tuesday night. A 3-0 lead for the Boston Celtics would have taken all the wind out of the Finals.

Shooting more free throws in the first quarter than they shot in all of Game 2, the Lakers were able to hold off Boston for an ugly 87-81 win in the first of three games on their home floor. Kobe Bryant scored 36 points, Sasha Vujacic added 20 and Celtics star Paul Pierce had an off night, scoring only six. But the Lakers might not have won if the edict hadn't come down from the league office, just like it did six years ago.

At least, that's one theory. And it's a plausible one if you believe disgraced ref Tim Donaghy, who dropped a bombshell Tuesday in the form of a letter to a federal judge in Brooklyn charging that league officials used referees to rig the 2002 Western Conference finals in favor of the Lakers over the Sacramento Kings.

Donaghy, 41, who pleaded guilty to felony charges stemming from his role in a gambling scandal, faces 33 months in prison at his sentencing July 14. The letter, filed Monday on his behalf, suggests that Donaghy deserves a lighter sentence because he has cooperated with law enforcement, telling about what he says was widespread corruption.

The NBA repeated its longtime assertion that Donaghy was a rogue referee who acted alone when he influenced games he'd bet on.

"He's a singing, cooperating witness who is trying to get as light a sentence as he can," commissioner David Stern said at the Staples Center before Tuesday's game. "The U.S. attorney's office, the FBI, have fully investigated it, and Mr. Donaghy is the only one who is guilty of a crime."

Donaghy's letter doesn't mention the Lakers and Kings by name, saying only that referees known as "company men" were working a certain series that year, and that in Game 6 they manipulated foul calls to favor the team that trailed three games to two in order to extend the series to a more lucrative seven games.

The Lakers-Kings series was the only one that year that fits the description, with the Kings leading 3-2 going into Game 6 in Los Angeles. The Lakers shot an astonishing 27 free throws in the fourth quarter of that game. The Kings shot 25 all night. Both of Sacramento's centers, Scot Pollard and Vlade Divac, fouled out, with some phantom fouls of Shaquille O'Neal among their six, and at one point Bryant knocked Mike Bibby silly with an elbow to the nose. Foul on Bibby.

It is almost unanimously remembered as the most poorly officiated game in history, with virtually all of the calls going against Sacramento. Even Lakers fans marvel at it to this day. Ralph Nader got into the act, sending a letter to Stern asking him to investigate the officiating.

So Donaghy's accusation passes the sniff test.

But it's not a slam-dunk. As Stern -- hardly an objective party here, of course, since he's the accused -- pointed out, Donaghy isn't exactly a reliable source. And if you're going to conjure up an accusation that the NBA fixed games, wouldn't you choose the game everybody remembers for the losing team getting worked?

Donaghy also alleged, in the same nonspecific way, that the league ordered referees to start calling moving-screen fouls on Yao Ming in Game 3 of the 2005 Dallas Mavericks-Houston Rockets series. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy was hit with a record $100,000 fine at the time for saying much the same thing. The Mavericks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win that series.

Pollard, who believe it or not now plays for the Celtics -- though he last doffed the warm-up togs on Feb. 24 -- told reporters Tuesday that while "it entered my mind" that the 2002 series could have been fixed, he doesn't believe Donaghy. Noting that there must have been refs unhappy over losing their jobs between 2002 and now who would have spoken up if they'd been told to manipulate games, Pollard said, "I don't buy that [the league] could keep that secret."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson was also asked about biased officiating extending that series in 2002. "Was that after the fifth game," he asked sarcastically, "after we had the game stolen away from us after a bad call out of bounds and gave the ball back to Sacramento and they made a three-point shot?"

It's not nearly as well remembered, but the Lakers were the ones carping about the officiating after Games 2 and 5. It was just a horribly officiated series. Things swung back and forth starting in Game 1 -- when Bryant decked Doug Christie with an elbow and Christie was whistled for the foul. That fits the pattern of trying to extend the series to seven games. It also fits the pattern of the officiating just being horrible.

If the refs -- Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Ted Bernhardt, a veteran crew -- were trying to hand that Game 6 to the Lakers, they got lucky that Los Angeles was so good from the foul line. The Lakers won the game by four points, having made 34 of 40 foul shots, a blistering 85 percent. Even Shaq hit 13 of 17. Had they shot their habitual 70 percent, and everything else gone the same, they'd have been two points short.

The refs called 31 fouls against the Kings that night and have spent the six years since being accused of fixing the game. Were they prepared to call even more?

And if you're going to fix Game 6 to ensure a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals, why not fix the Eastern Conference finals too? The same situation presented itself. The provincial New Jersey Nets led the glamorous Boston Celtics 3-2 heading into Game 6 in Boston. But not only did the Nets win that game, they shot eight more free throws and were called for five fewer fouls. Where was the fix?

And once you've fixed Game 6, why not rig Game 7 so that the glamorous, big-market, superstar-laden two-time defending champs win and go to the Finals? The Lakers did win that game, of course, but they only shot three more free throws than the Kings, and the story of that game wasn't the officiating, it was the Kings missing 14 of their 30 free throws and clanking a bunch of makable shots down the stretch.

Perhaps a corroborating witness or some hard evidence will back up Donaghy's accusations. Until then, I don't believe him. But plenty of non-loony people do believe him, and I can understand why.

Unless the NBA really is fixing games, its biggest problem is that an accusation like Donaghy's rings true for the fan base. It does pass the sniff test, does sound plausible. That's a testament to just how bad, how inconsistent to the point of randomness, NBA officiating has been.

The Lakers shot 34 free throws Tuesday night to Boston's 22. The Celtics got called for five more fouls than the Lakers did. A big part of that was that the Lakers were far more aggressive than they had been in the first two games. They drove to the basket repeatedly, especially Bryant, who shot 18 of the free throws. They hadn't done that in Boston.

But what does it say about NBA officiating that fans and commentators both expected the officials to rack up fouls against the Celtics once the series moved to Los Angeles? The Lakers made it easy by attacking the basket, but if they hadn't, most NBA observers, I think, believe those fouls would have been called anyway.

This column has maintained for years that that's been the NBA's biggest problem. Not the supposed thuggishness of the players, not even the sludgy, defensive-minded play of the 1990s, but the capriciousness of the officiating. One set of rules for stars, another for rookies. The same contact being a foul one time down the floor but not the next, or a foul in the middle of a quarter but not at the buzzer -- like the no-call when Derek Fisher crashed into Brent Barry in the last seconds of the Lakers' Game 4 win over the San Antonio Spurs in this year's Western Conference finals.

The NBA's unwillingness or inability to clean up its officiating, to formulate clear explanations of what constitutes a violation and why and when that violation is called, to achieve consistency in the way calls are made, has left it vulnerable to accusations like those made by Donaghy.

Stern dismissed Donaghy once again Tuesday as a rogue liar who should be ignored. Donaghy may be a rogue liar. He probably is. But if Stern ignores him, doesn't move to fix that vulnerability, he'll be continuing a long-running mistake.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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