Superstar rules help the Lakers

Bryant gets a key non-call to help L.A. send the NBA Finals back to Boston for Game 6.

Published June 16, 2008 8:45AM (EDT)

Perfect. NBA commissioner David Stern has spent most of the past week trying to convince us that not only are its referees above reproach, other than that one "rogue" guy, Tim Donaghy, but that they are the most scrutinized and graded and goshdarn competent bunch of officials in sports.

And then superstar Kobe Bryant seals a win for the Los Angeles Lakers with a defensive play that, had it been made by a non-superstar, would have been called a foul precisely 100 times out of 100. Maybe 101 times out of 100.

Referees usually can't call a foul fast enough when a non-superstar defender reaches around from behind a dribbler at midcourt, as Bryant did to Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics in the waning moments of the Lakers' season-saving win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Sunday.

And with good reason. It's usually a foul. Usually, when a defender reaches like that, he ends up smacking the dribbler's side with his forearm, whether he touches the ball or not. Trying to think of a good example here of a defender reaching around and whacking a dribbler like that and -- oh, here's one: Kobe Bryant on Paul Pierce Sunday night. No foul. What separates Bryant from a run-of-the-mill NBA player?

He doesn't get called for that foul, that's what.

The ball, which Bryant might or might not have touched, squirted over to Lamar Odom, who fed Bryant, who went downcourt and dunked for a 99-95 Los Angeles lead. There were some iffy moments after that for the home team, but the Lakers hung on for a 103-98 win, Step 1 in their improbable three-step task of becoming the first team ever to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.

Game 6 will be Tuesday in Boston, and calling a completed Lakers comeback improbable doesn't do the improbability justice. The Lakers didn't win Sunday because of a swallowed whistle. They jumped out to an early lead against a jittery-looking Celtics team, then hung on through some ebb-and-flow in the second half. That was an improvement over Game 4, when the Lakers took an early lead, then got blitzed, never again showing signs of life.

But if the Lakers are expecting to be able to jump out to a 20-point head start, as they've done in the last two games, in Boston, they've got another thing coming.

The matador defense that's allowed Paul Pierce to drive the lane with little opposition, the failure to put a body on dribblers and cutters, the softness on the offensive end by Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the unwillingness of Bryant to try to take over the game, all of these things are likely to add up to a big early lead for the Celtics in Game 6, and then a long, slow bleeding out.

The Celtics are not a spectacular team, other than Pierce, who has been a revelation this postseason. Always very good and sometimes great, he's played like a superstar this spring, which is usually required of a contender's best player if it's going to go all the way.

He's the only one of the transcendent stars in this series who's been consistently willing to try to carry his team. Why Kevin Garnett isn't willing to try to do that is a mystery. Why Bryant doesn't try to do it every night is another. If nothing else, superstars get the calls. Might as well act like one.

But if the Celtics aren't spectacular, they're steady and deep, and they play with Garnett's intensity all the time. They're plenty good enough to knock off a team as flighty as the Lakers have proved to be. They came into this series looking like an underdog in the eyes of many, including this column's. At this point, it would be something of an upset if the Celtics trailed after halftime of Game 6.

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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