The Los Angeles Lakers have played a mostly thrilling and incredible Western Conference Finals so far, featuring sizzling individual scoring performances, amazing displays of athleticism and coordination, and even an instantly iconic buzzer-beater.
So as one might expect, all people have wanted to talk about is the officiating.
The Lakers are up 3-1, and after they took that lead with a Game 4 win on Thursday, conversation among fans across social media — and disappointingly, even among media members on Twitter who should know better — instantly turned to whether or not the NBA had “rigged” the series for the Lakers. It was easy to point to “evidence,” if one didn’t think all that hard or do that much research.
For one thing, the Lakers shot 35 free throws while the Nuggets took 23 in Game 4. And it happened the game after Lakers head coach Frank Vogel suggested that the team had let the NBA know through the “proper channels” that they weren’t happy with the amount of free throws LeBron James was getting (he shot 14 in Game 4 after getting 10 in the three previous games).
So that’s it, right? LeBron put in the call to Adam Silver, and the Lakers are going to the Finals? Well, not exactly.
Yes, the Lakers did get more free throws than the Nuggets in Game 4, but four of them came on intentional fouls at the end of the game as Denver tried to stop the clock. Is nine free throws really evidence of a conspiracy? Probably not (or the NBA just sucks at rigging games, if so).
There is also the reality that the Nuggets were only whistled for three more fouls than the Lakers were in Game 4, and have been dead-even in free throw attempts during the course of the series, all while the Lakers have been called for more fouls than the Nuggets have been.
Through 4 games, both the Lakers and Nuggets have attempted 113 free throws. The Lakers have been whistled for 109 fouls, and the Nuggets 97.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 25, 2020
Still, tons of people were asking the question of whether or not the Lakers complaining about the refs got them a favorable whistle. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, even while saying that the loss wasn’t just about free throws, still had a crack for the Lakers and the league:
Nuggets coach Mike Malone: "I'm going to have to go through the proper channels like they did to get some more free throws."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) September 25, 2020
That’s a funny zinger in the context of Vogel’s earlier remark, but what are the “proper channels,” and how often do teams use them? In an attempt to clarify all the confusion about all this and demonstrate that talking to the league about this stuff is a normal thing every team does regularly, I asked Frank Vogel about it after the Lakers’ practice on Friday.
“It’s very simple,” Vogel said. “We didn’t file any complaint or anything like that, there’s a thing called the officiating portal that you’re allowed to submit calls that you think were wrong calls from the game before. We do that every game, all year long, as does every team, and this series has been no different. So I think that’s a false narrative in terms of what you’re referring to with all the talk about the fouls.”
Don’t believe that every team does this, as Vogel says? Even Malone himself acknowledged at Denver’s practice that the Nuggets do the exact same thing, while reiterating that fouls are not the reason his team is down 3-1.
“Fouls are fouls. Obviously, we have sent in some of the clips that we felt were missed last night. We’ll leave it at that and wait on the NBA’s response,” Malone said. “But the rebounding has nothing to do with that. Dwight Howard dominated in the first quarter — eight points, eight rebounds, four on the offensive end. They had 25 second-chance points. When the shot goes up, we have to be a lot more physical. We have gotten caught ball watching or we have been engaged, but just not with the requisite amount of energy and fight.
“There was a stretch, I think late in the game, it was a five-point game three straight possessions. We just needed one stop and we forced the miss, but we were unable to get the rebound. Now they just got an extra possession. LeBron James shot a free throw and missed. He got the rebound himself and put it back in,” Malone continued. “We can get caught up in that and use the refs as an easily, readily available excuse if we want. I’m not going to, because we didn’t lose the game last night because of anybody except ourselves. We did not meet the fight on the glass. And let’s go back, going into this series we talked about two things over and over again, I did at least: It was transition defense and rebounding. I think the rebounding has a lot to do with not just last night, but this series overall.”
So look, people are still going to conspiracy-monger about this. They’re going to shout “rigged for ratings” as if the NBA wasn’t hoping for a battle of L.A. that Denver denied the league, or mention “Tim Donaghy” as if he is a trustworthy individual. This stuff is all in bad faith, and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator who is mad the Lakers are winning.
But did the Lakers talk to the league about fouls? Yes, but so do the Nuggets and every NBA other team. They’d all be negligent not to use the league’s portal for that purpose. It’s not the reason the Lakers have a 3-1 lead though, just like it won’t be the reason they win or lose Game 5. The refs have been inconsistent all bubble, because refereeing is hard. We shouldn’t assign to conspiracy what is much easier to attribute to human error, and is clearly evening out if you look at the actual series-long numbers.