I’ve been writing a lot on MVN lately. Sorry about the overall lack of Kobe Bryant-centric content here on RespectKobe.com — I’ll try to get a new article up here soon. In the meantime, head over and read my latest article on MVN. Here’s an excerpt here are my thoughts on the latest Lakers controversy, reproduced here in full because it has since been removed from the MVN archives:
In the latest example of a slowly (but surely) increasing trend, the NBA admitted yesterday that Derek Fisher did, in fact, foul Brent Barry prior to his last-second 3-point attempt that missed, resulting in a Spurs loss in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
The foul, as you already know, was not called, and these last 36 hours following that critical decision by the game’s officials have seen significant discussion of the game’s final play.
None of this is surprising — especially since the Lakers, a team that owns a permanent spot in the musings of every NBA conspiracy theorist — benefited from the non-call. What is surprising is that there has been such extensive discussion of the matter — and such vehement disagreement — here, in this Lakers-centric column, amongst Lakers fans.
Ed Ziti’s column, in which he argues not only that the non-call was the wrong decision, but that it should have been an easy and obvious call, has received 52 comments to date, making it the most discussed piece in this space since a January 3rd post, also written by Ziti, tallied 53 comments.
The discussion of the final play in the game that gave the Lakers a 3-1 series lead over the San Antonio Spurs is passionate and heated, and it’s unfortunate that it eventually degraded into name calling and ad hominem attacks, of which both sides were equally guilty, and that both sides failed to recognize the validity of the other’s points. Given the heated tone of the discussion and the multi-faceted nature of the subject matter — and believe me, it is not as simple as it may seem — I have decided to weigh in on the matter, in hopes of bringing together all of the valid points that have been raised on both sides of the argument to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
Let me make two things clear, right from the start. First, I’m going to disagree with Ed, in that I believe the non-call was the correct call. And second, I absolutely reject the suggestion raised in the midst of this heated discussion that Ed is a poor analyst. In fact, I commend him for his commitment to journalistic integrity and his striving towards objectivity — let me assure you that it is far from easy to be objective when covering a team in which one has such a personal and passionate vested interest, but Ed Ziti does a superb job of it.
That said, let’s dive into this.
First, I want to address the issue of Joey Crawford’s presence in the officiating crew. Ziti has suggested that it was inappropriate for Crawford to officiate this game, because of his history with Tim Duncan. I disagree.
There are only two options here: Either Crawford is considered fit to referee in the NBA, capable of making objective decisions and maintaining a high degree of professionalism, or he is not. Period. If he is, then that applies across the board, regardless of who is playing in the game that he is officiating. If he is not capable of calling a game with a high degree of objectivity and professionalism, then he should not be allowed to officiate any NBA games whatsoever.
If the league believes that Crawford is, in fact, a trustworthy employee, capable of performing objectively and professionally in any circumstance, then, must apply across the board. For the league to withhold him from officiating Spurs games would be an implicit admission to the fact that he is not, in fact, qualified to referee in this league, and therefore should not be employed by the NBA as an official at all.
The league clearly doesn’t believe this to be the case. Therefore, though it may be a storyline for some media outlets, from the NBA’s perspective Joey Crawford officiating this game should be no more an issue than than it would be with any other game, involving any other team, throughout the entire season.
Next, let’s look at the Derek Fisher foul. Let me be very clear about this: It was a foul. Fisher jumped up and towards Barry, and he collided with him as he landed. Not only is that a foul, but it’s a very clear and obvious one, and one of the most consistently called fouls in NBA basketball.
But the question here isn’t whether or not Fisher fouled Barry. It’s whether or not the foul should have been called.
Bear with me here. Yes, we could get into how NBA officiating changes in the final moments of a close game. And yes, this would still be justification enough for the non-call. But none of that is necessary. In fact, we can still interpret the rules “by the book” and come to the same conclusion — that Fisher’s foul on Barry, while real, should not have been called.
Consider a fairly regular occurrence in NBA basketball. A player is fouled in a non-shooting situation, and during the stoppage of play, he casually jogs up to the basket and lays the ball in. Or a different example, in which the player with the ball pushes off, committing an offensive foul, before scoring. In each instance, the player on offense does make a basket. He does score. However, the basket does not count, because a prior infraction made it invalid.
Now, go back and watch the YouTube video of Fisher’s foul on Barry again. Pay attention to Barry’s feet, and it is clear that he travels. He establishes his right foot as his pivot foot, pivoting first counterclockwise, and then clockwise. Once he gets Fisher in the air, he takes a step with his right foot — the pivot foot — committing a traveling violation. All of this happens slightly before Fisher makes contact with Barry.
Barry’s travel was not called, and neither was Fisher’s contact foul. However, it is clear that if any call should have been made on that play, the first infraction was Barry’s travel. As such, if the play had been called correctly, the traveling violation would have stopped play, and Fisher’s foul would not have counted.
In the same way that the player who makes a basket after the whistle has blown and the play is dead does technically make a basket, Fisher did technically foul Barry. However, in the same way that the basket made after the whistle does not count, Fisher’s foul would not have counted, because in both cases the play would be dead, the first infraction would result in a foul, and everything that followed would not count.
Based on that alone, it should be clear that (a) the right decision was made regarding Fisher’s foul, and (b) if a foul was called, it should have gone against the Spurs. Therefore, it should be understood that this non-call did not, in any way, affect the outcome of the game.
But we’re not finished. There is even more to this than that.
The pro-Fisher side of the argument makes the case — correctly, I believe, and I will explain why — that several of the plays leading up to Barry’s last-second shot attempt are equally important to this discussion. In addition to the travel, these include at least two other incorrect decisions made by the officials.
First, as has been mentioned in this discussion many times, across the internets, is the fact that Derek Fisher’s shot with 6.9 seconds remaining did, in fact, glance off the rim. As such, the Lakers should have received a fresh 24-second clock, forcing the Spurs to foul on the inbound pass and most likely resulting in two made free throws and a 4-point Lakers lead. Had that happened, as it should have, the Spurs would not have been in position to tie or win the game in the first place.
Second is the play that occurred immediately prior to Fisher’s missed shot, in which Lamar Odom was called for goal tending, resulting in a Tony Parker layup by default. In fact, replays show that Odom made contact with the ball before it touched the backboard, meaning that it should have been a clean block rather than a goal tend.
Had these two plays, leading immediately to Barry’s last-second attempt, been called correctly, they would have resulted in a four-point Lakers lead with 6.9 second to go, and the Lakers would have had possession and a fresh 24-second shot clock.
Does any of this affect how the final play, itself, should have been called? No. That play needs to be called correctly, regardless of what transpired earlier in the game. (Thankfully, it was.) But it does have significant ramifications regarding the impact that final call would (or should) have had on the outcome of the game. As such, even if it was a legitimate foul that should have been called — and, as we’ve already determined, it was not — you could say that it was a bad call. You could not, however, conclude that poor end-of-game officiating changed the outcome of the game, because correct end-of-game officiating would have left the Spurs without the opportunity to tie or win the game in the first place.
Therefore, even if the call on the final play of the game was a bad one in the Lakers favor — an assertion I disagree with — it still did not impact the outcome of the game. And if that is the case, then why are we still talking about it? What sets it apart from any of the other bad calls that we’re not talking about?
That leads me to my next point. In the midst of this discussion about the three plays leading up to the final possession of the game, Ed has made it quite clear that he doesn’t feel that anything that happened prior to that possession has any bearing on the present discussion, and therefore any point based on those earlier possessions is moot. I have to disagree.
Let’s consider why we are discussing this final call — and again, there are only two options here. Either (a) we admit that we are discussing this one, single play in particular because we believe it may have affected the outcome of the game (i.e., the Spurs could/should have won it, but they were deprived of that opportunity), or (b) we are simply evaluating the call in and of itself, without regards to how it affected the game.
Of course, it doesn’t make much sense to deny that this discussion is based not only on the idea that it was a bad (non-) call, but that that call changed the outcome of the game. After all, if that’s not why we’re talking about it, then why is this call receiving special attention? Why discuss it at length, as opposed to any of the other botched calls of the game? In fact, the only reason to treat this possession any differently than any other possession throughout the course of the game is the idea that it affected the outcome of the game.
However, if that is the case, then I would argue that the previous two incorrect calls — Odom’s goal tend and Fisher’s missed shot — had every bit as much impact on the end result of the game as Fisher’s foul would have, had it been called.
As such, the conclusion is simple. If we deny that we’re discussing the final play of the game because we feel it affected the end result, then there simply is no reason to discuss that single play in particular at all. The poor officiating on the previous two plays were equally bad, and therefore merit an equal amount of discussion. On the other hand, if we admit that we’re discussing the final play because of its potential impact on the game, then we must also admit that the impact of the previous two calls could have been equally as significant to the end result of the game.
Either way, the bad calls leading up to the final possession most certainly do have a place in the discussion — whether that be simply a generic, inconsequential discussion regarding the poor officiating in this game, or a debate as to how these plays affected the outcome of the game.
The final issue I’d like to address is that of contextual officiating — that is, the idea that officials should call the game differently in the final moments of a close game than they do under normal circumstances. For this, I’m going to let Spurs coach Gregg Popovich do most of the talking.
When asked whether the final play of Game 4 was an example of how officials shy from making calls during “crunch time,” Popovich had the following to say:
This is clearly a well-thought out, sincere answer from Popovich. I don’t think you can say that this is merely a political, tactical response, designed to curry favor with the officials. And the point that Popovich makes is one that we all know to be true: admit it or not, the officials do call the game differently in the final moments of a close game. They have for a long time.
To be completely truthful, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I see strong points on both sides of the argument, and though I personally tend to lean towards the camp that feels that a game should be called the same for all 2,880 second of play, I’m far from decided on the issue.
One thing, however, is clear: Precedence. Precedence is key. It is partially thanks to precedence that Kobe Bryant received the MVP Award this year — had the voters not established a nearly impeccable 25-year precedent for MVP candidates winning 50 games or more, voters might have been more inclined to give the award to LeBron James, who was certainly more valuable to his team, this year, than Kobe was to his. But precedence is important, because if the voters had changed their criteria for the award this year, it would have been a gross injustice to Bryant, and an unfair advantage to James.
In the same way, precedence is equally important in this situation. Should games be officiated the same way in the final minutes of a close match? Perhaps, but the time to make that decision is not at the end of Game 4 in the Western Conference Finals. The precedent has been very clearly and thoroughly established for referees calling the game more leniently in “clutch” situations, and it would be unfair to the Lakers and an undue advantage to the Spurs to suddenly change that well-established precedent on the spot.
The conclusion from all of this should be overwhelmingly in the favor of the referees who decided not to call a foul on Fisher last night. Because Barry traveled first, the call, if any, should have been against him, not against Fisher. However, those final moments of the game were officiated more leniently, and rightly so, because that conforms to a clearly established precedent. And even if all of this were not true, it still could not be said that the final play affected the outcome of the game, since the two calls preceding it would have had every bit as much of an impact on the final score.
Given all of this, I think it can be safely said that the situation was far from cut and dry, and the call was far from an obvious one. And that, in and of itself, is a good reason for the officials not to make that call — since, as Popovich noted, the officials should never decide the game on a call that is uncertain, as this one, with so many things in play, clearly was.
So, yes, it was most assuredly a foul. But no, it most certainly should not have been called. And no, it definitely did not change the outcome of the game.
There is no controversy here, folks. The best team won, with absolutely no help from the officials. That is all.