The NBA has shown me something in these playoffs. Specifically, the 7-game series format for the postseason is simply brilliant. If there’s any sure thing in this 21st century sports media, it’s the way controversy explodes around questionable outcomes.
In March Madness, the bad call sends one team home and another on to the next round. The NFL, similarly, usually has a good, long while between the same two teams facing each other, so emotions have time to settle before the rivals hook it up again. In the NBA playoffs, you get those two teams at each other’s throats Monday playing each other again Wednesday.
Game 5 in San Antonio will have that kind of hostile crackle to it, the same tension seen in Phoenix for Game 5 of the Spurs/Suns series last round. Four technical fouls (two on coach Jerry Sloan and two on veteran Derek Fisher) on the Jazz in the fourth quarter. Manu Ginobili flopping like a fish out of water. These events from last night will come under my scrutiny here over the next handful of paragraphs. But I have to start with a group of people that don’t even play basketball.
Should any of the few Jazz fans abysmally ignorant enough to throw objects onto the court after the game’s conclusion read this, I’d like to personally assert that I hope you are never permitted into an NBA arena again. Coaches and players have to keep their emotions in check, for even the slightest wrong word earns them a hefty fine or worse. We all know the frightful consequences that come of things being thrown at players. About 99% of possible provocation is no grounds for a player to go into the stands, and thankfully no one did tonight.
But those responsible for the projectiles that came soaring out of the stands after San Antonio defeated the Jazz 91-79 should, for lack of better or wittier terminology, be very ashamed of their behavior. The athletes are the athletes, and as such we endlessly expect them to not respond to antagonism. Still, it’s preposterous to assume that just because a fee for a ticket was paid that spectators are free to partake in this kind of silly and classless temper tantrum.
That isn’t to imply that the officials are blameless. No one likes to talk about the dudes in stripes after the game, but some of these statistics are just mind boggling. San Antonio scored 19 of their 28 points in the fourth quarter from the free throw line. They also got six more shots from the line that they missed. Through the course of the game, San Antonio shot twice as many free throws as Utah did. And, folks, this isn’t a situation where Utah doesn’t play a physical style of ball that gets you to the line. That’s left to Phoenix and Golden State. The truth was that this game was poorly officiated, and while it gives no lunatics clearance to chuck random garbage onto the court, it is something that deserves to be mentioned. A few times, in fact.
The most egregious infraction from a rules standpoint has to be the flopping that went on, especially late in the game. I always appreciated Reggie Miller’s ability to draw contact when he played for the Pacers. Some would have called it the predecessor to the flopping that goes on now. But some of the acting jobs Manu Ginobili gifted us with tonight were just a bit too much. This is not soccer, and when it’s so blatantly obvious from even our petty spectator vantage point that a player is willfully propelling himself around like he just got hit by a tank, I find it hard to believe the officials, standing a mere few feet away, don’t pick up on this and take it into account accordingly. Again, it’s not as if the Jazz faithful have nothing to be displeased about. Just not enough to warrant throwing things around like a 6-year-old.
There were players on the court throughout this contest, believe it or not. Not all the news comes from the fans and the officiating crew. The most noteworthy performance tonight had to be Deron Williams, who came out and played fantastic basketball despite having battled a stomach virus of some sort throughout the past two days. He ended up with 27 points and 10 assists, again confounding all the defensive tactics San Antonio used to slow him down. His chief partner in crime, Carlos Boozer, also played decently if not spectacularly.
Where Utah fell short was those pesky role players again. After emerging in the Jazz’s Game 3 whipping, Utah’s supporting cast again faded away, especially down the stretch. The bench that helped Utah so much in Game 3 didn’t even score in double digits as a unit. In fact, no Jazz player beyond Williams and Boozer got to 10 points.
And despite all of it, the third quarter ended with the Spurs leading 63-62 and with Deron Williams having just propelled Utah back into the game after being down by 11 early in the second half. The Jazz certainly had adversity to deal with throughout the final period, but great teams win even when it seems they’re not supposed to. Utah’s mental toughness betrayed them once the phantom calls started coming in, and the frustration was fairly evident. Derek Fisher, a fairly calm soul most of the time, got two different technical fouls. That serves as some illustration for how frustrated Utah was getting.
And San Antonio, like any ruthless, calculating championship team, capitalized. Manu Ginobili made sure to make those free throws he was blessed with count. Tim Duncan also shot far above his average at the line. Even with the calls going their way, it seems like San Antonio still treated each possession as if it were the most important of the game. There could be a legitimate argument for San Antonio having won without the additional help they got from the men with the whistles.
Game 5 will be in San Antonio Wednesday night, and it’s hard to think Utah has much of a chance down 3-1 in the series. It will be intriguing to see if Utah comes out playing with pride and at least tries to send the series back to Utah for Game 6. With such a young squad, this kind of frazzling experience might zap them of their energy and intensity. Jerry Sloan is a great coach and a superb motivator, so I expect Utah to at least come out fighting now. But they will forever remember that San Antonio made more free throws in Game 4 (30) than they made actual baskets (28). I think I can objectively declare that there was no excuse for the poor officiating on display tonight. But not even that is a good excuse for throwing things on the court.