By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
The shame of the NBA is that one wants to watch these terrific athletes in contests that are fairly played and honestly won, then puts up with officiating controversies at almost every turn.
Like no other league, the NBA stands suspected of rigging outcomes. Like no other league, the NBA is embroiled in matters of officials involving themselves with gambling. Players have long been vocal about the NBA’s lack of integrity. Officials make errors in the NFL and Major League Baseball, too, but those are always regarded as honest mistakes. In the NBA, ulterior motives are often cited.
Crucial, controversial calls have loomed large in the last two playoff appearances for the San Antonio Spurs. Last year, after Robert Horry checked the Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash into the scoring table, two Suns players jumped off the bench and began swinging. The Suns played the rest of that series without Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire, allowing the Spurs to come back and win.
The call this week came Tuesday night, when Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers went airborne and landed on the Spurs’ Brent Barry before he could put up a three-pointer that might have tied Game 4 at the buzzer. The Spurs needed that shot to tie the series. Without it, they fell down, 3-1, and faced a requirement of three straight wins – two in LA – to advance.
It was almost impossible. The Lakers closed it out, 100-92, in Los Angeles Thursday night.
To their credit, Barry and Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich both understood why that foul wouldn’t be called. But the league came back Wednesday and said the its referees – Joey Crawford, Joe Forte and Mark Wunderlich – blew the call. It didn’t help the Spurs, of course, but it was interesting that the NBA should publicly admit a blown call. Following the Tim Donahey gambling affair and last year’s suspension of Crawford last year for ejecting Tim Duncan from the bench, perhaps the front office is less protective of its referees.
The referees didn’t cost the Spurs their 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Manu Ginobili played on a bad ankle and wasn’t even close to full strength. When Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker aren’t all at full strength, the Spurs aren’t going back to the NBA Finals, no matter who they’re playing.
The Spurs, once again, have failed to go back-to-back for NBA titles, meaning we’re in for a summer of wondering how they will retool their aging roster. The same discussion commenced after the Dallas Mavericks knocked them from the 2006 playoffs, but the Spurs came back to win the title in 2007.
If Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are healthy at the right times, they can do that again next year. But the Western Conference is getting younger at the top and tougher all the way through. The Spurs’ moment, a ten-year moment, might be finished. But we’ll let them decide.