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Officials' Work Is Disturbing


All along, I've wanted to see a seventh game. But not if it had to come about like this.

If you care about basketball, Friday night's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals was a rip-off. The Kings and Lakers didn't decide this series; three referees did. Statistical evidence is usually circumstantial, but consider this anyway: The Lakers had shot an average of 22 foul shots through the first five games of this series, but Friday night at home they shot 27 ... in the fourth quarter.

Overwhelmingly, the referees are terrific at a next-to-impossible job. And the three men assigned to call Friday's Game 6--Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Ted Bernhardt--are three of the best in the game.

But to ignore the role officiating played in Game 6 of the NBA's showcase playoff series would essentially be to ignore the primary story line in the Lakers' 106-102 victory. And not addressing it would leave unexamined the swelling chorus of concern among everyday basketball fans that the league and/or its TV partner, NBC, has an interest in either helping the league's most glamorous and marketable team, the Lakers, or at the very least prolonging a dramatic series.

Let me start by declaring I have no ties to Los Angeles or to Sacramento, and have no rooting interest in the series other than that I did pick the Lakers to win in six games. And I have zero tolerance for "conspiracy" stories, that the NBA and NBC conspire to influence if not straight-up arrange the outcome.

Having said that, I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as it was in Game 6. It was bad in Game 5 in Sacramento, when the Kings got the benefit of some very questionable calls, then unforgivably rotten in Game 6 Friday.

The difficult thing about refereeing an NBA game, compared with Major League Baseball and NFL games, is that virtually every single call is subjective.

But the calls made Friday night were just plain wrong, right out in the open for everybody watching on TV to see, even before replay.

And when I checked my voice-mail late Friday night, I heard exactly what I expected to hear: outrage. If people watching these games at home see Scot Pollard fouled out of the game without touching Shaquille O'Neal, what do we think they think? I know what they think. They think exactly what Vlade Divac thinks, that Sacramento would have to have been letter-perfect to win Game 6 in Los Angeles because there is a larger agenda.

I didn't say that's the reality of the situation. But that is, increasingly, the perception. And therefore, the NBA has a problem.

This is what happens when you have such a wild disparity in fouls called from one game to another, ridiculous 180-degree swings from one game to the next to the next, as if Shaq ramming his elephantine shoulder into a defender is a foul Wednesday, but not Friday.

The key matchup for Game 7 isn't Kobe vs. Bibby or Peja Stojakovic's health or the Lakers' three-point shooting; it's how the referees are going to handle Shaquille O'Neal.

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