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Old 06-20-2006, 01:39 PM   #1332
Tebowing the long haul
all the way to the title

Join Date: Apr 2004
Location: TX, USA
Posts: 37,002

Champ Bailey

• Say what you want about Pat Riley pulling an O.J. on Stan Van Gundy (and I have), but you can see why he did it. They never played defense under Van Gundy like they did during these past three games; the overall urgency was never there. Riley also learned a couple of tricks during his Knicks days about evening the odds with an out-manned team -- subtle ways to disrupt the flow of a game, whether it's timely timeouts, constant defensive changes, offense/defense subs, the "no easy layups" rule or whatever. He "uglies" the game up (for lack of a better word). That's why you rarely see the '94-95 Knicks or any of those Mourning/Hardaway Miami teams on ESPN Classic. The games just weren't that fun to watch.
More importantly, Van Gundy never would have had the scrotal fortitude to make offensive/defensive subs with Shaq in the final few minutes of any close game, and Shaq never would have allowed it to happen. At this point of his career, Shaq is like Pedro Martinez with the Mets -- you can get 100 pitches out of him, his stats look great, he's invaluable from a chemistry/confidence standpoint and he's rarely around for the last few outs. Riley realized it last year, Van Gundy never did, and that's the single biggest reason why they're better off with Riley.

Nathanial S. Butler/Getty Images
"Stan? No, I don't know where Stan is these days."
(On a scale of 1 to 10, how bitter is Van Gundy right now? A 38? Remember, they probably would have won LAST year if Wade didn't get hurt in the Detroit series. If you were Van Gundy, wouldn't you at least start an "I hate Riley" blog under an assumed name? And imagine if Miami wins the whole thing? Will Van Gundy crash the trophy presentation like Jack Ruby? Can't wait to see how this plays out.)

• Put me in the "Avery Johnson has been too wound up" camp. As well as the "Nowitzki looks like he's hit the wall," "Maybe ABC should stop reminding everyone in Milwaukee that they could have had Dirk Nowitzki, it's becoming cruel" and "Maybe Mark Cuban shouldn't have gone on 'Letterman' after Game 3 and made it seem like the series was still in the bag" camps.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Need the home team to win a big game? Bennett Salvatore to the rescue.
• Lost in the hullabaloo about the cheap foul at the end of OT and Josh Howard's phantom timeout ... what about Wade sticking those two free throws to tie/win the game? When was the last NBA Finals game where someone made the tying/winning free throws with under two seconds left? And how many guys in the league would you have completely trusted to make both of those? My list looks like this: Kobe, Nowitzki, Wade, Nash. That's it.
• You might remember my sitting/standing rules from the last mailbag. Well, here's an addendum for everyone in Miami that I thought was self-explanatory but obviously needs to be rehashed: If it's Game 5 of the NBA Finals, there's three minutes or less remaining in a close game and you're attending said game, here are the acceptable excuses for not standing:
Excuse No. 1: You're in a wheelchair.
Excuse No. 2: You're foreign and this is your first NBA game.
Excuse No. 3: Your little kid is sleeping on your lap.
Excuse No. 4: You're so overweight you have trouble getting up and down.
Excuse No. 5: You're an overweight foreign parent in a wheelchair with a little kid sleeping on your lap.

• That reminds me, here's an interesting question from California reader Brian Ackerman: "After watching Shaq miss more free throws, I can't help but ask: Is there another situation in sports where a seventh-grade girl can be more proficient in a key part of the sport than one of the most dominant professional players of all time? I can't make the question any more basic. There are literally hundreds of 12-year-old girls who can shoot free throws better than him. That fact alone must beg the even deeper question: Can NBA basketball really be a sport, given the above-mentioned situation?"
I will say this: The crazy thing about Shaq's free-throw shooting is that, fundamentally, he's always been completely wrong. Shaq shoots his free throws like line drives. Well, that makes no sense. Imagine you're trying to throw a rolled-up piece of paper into a garbage can -- instinctively, would you throw it with a Nowitzki-like arc, or would you whip it in a straight line at the can? You'd throw it with the arc. Everyone would. So why would Shaq continue to whip straight line drives at the rim for 14 consecutive years? Have we ever definitively answered this question?
• Back to Stackhouse's "hard" foul: I watched all of Game 4, as well as SportsCenter after the game, and not a single announcer wondered whether Stack was retaliating for Shaq's three-stitch elbow in Game 1. For God's sake, do you know anything about Jerry Stackhouse? He's one of the toughest dudes in the league -- if you made a list of "Players whose sister you wouldn't want to accidentally sleep with," he'd be right up there. When that Shaq elbow happened and Stackhouse was nodding angrily afterward -- like, "OK, so that's how we're playing, gotcha" -- I specifically remember thinking to myself, "I can't wait for the moment when Stack tries to get him back."
So when he cracked him in Game 4, that was my first reaction: "There it was! I knew it!" But it was a totally legal foul, and only the replay betrayed him -- in slow-motion from one angle, you could see Stack sizing Shaq up for a brief second, much like the Posey-Hinrich incident in Round 1, and that's what ended up getting him suspended. And here's where the NBA has lost its grip a little bit. Shaq was running loose toward the basket for a free dunk and probably outweighs Stackhouse by 125 pounds. If Stackhouse did anything BUT foul Shaq as hard as he could, he would have bounced off Shaq like a 5-foot-10 cornerback bouncing off Antonio Gates, Shaq would have made the layup for a potential three-point play, and Hubie Brown would have told us, "See, now, when you are fouling in that situation ... you cannot ... give up ... the three-point play." Basically, Stackhouse was screwed either way.
So here's my question: At what point are we compromising the competitiveness of these games? If you've ever played basketball, then you know that s---, um, staff happens during a competitive game. It's not abnormal for two teammates to start screaming at one another. It's not abnormal for someone to foul someone else a little bit harder than he intended. It's not abnormal for two opponents to start exchanging some good-natured barbs -- if anything, that kind of dialogue always livens up the game and gets everyone else going.
Believe me, I understand why we reached this point -- in the late-'90s, an entire generation of players weaned on hard fouls (like the McHale-Rambis clothesline), trash-talking superstars (like Bird and MJ) and constant woofing (from the Fab Five and UNLV in particular) ended up taking all three of those elements to inappropriate levels. I concede this point. But haven't we swung too much the other way now? For instance, when LeBron psyched out Gilbert Arenas at the free-throw line in the final game of the Cavs-Wiz series, that was one of my favorite moments of the playoffs -- not only that LeBron had the confidence to do something like that, but that it reminded me of something that would happen on the playground, just two ballers talking smack before a big moment.
Of course, the NBA decided that this was deplorable and ordered their referees to prevent this from ever happening again. (God forbid the last two minutes of an NBA game was anything other than formulaic and predictable.) But I think this is one of the reasons why I enjoy watching those games from the '80s so much -- not just because of the style of play (constantly moving, constantly going) but the competitive energy that never seemed to wane. Now guys are allowed to compete, but only to a point. It's like a glorified youth soccer game with more fans. And out of everything that's happened in the Stern Era, this was their biggest mistake. Well, other than continuing to have Bennett Salvatore work playoff games.

Officially Speaking
Note: I'm not saying I agree with these perspectives ... but here's a very fair sampling of the e-mails that drifted into my mailbox on Sunday night and Monday morning.

I do solemnly swear, this 19th day of June, 2006 that I will never watch an NBA game again. Everyone is supposed to say what a great game that was with a straight face? At least the WWE has the grace to give you a wink. If watching a man in a flak jacket and thigh pads repeatedly throw himself into defenders to draw foul calls is what passes for "competition," or better yet watching said man hit layups because no one can breathe on him, I believe I can live without [it]. Why would anyone follow a "sport" that employs Dick Bavetta and Stu Jackson? All that was missing was David Stern running onto the court with a steel chair, ABC execs in tow. Bill Simmons, I name thee prophet. It went down exactly as you said it would.
-- James, Richmond, Virginia

Twenty-five free throw attempts is nonsense, not even M.J. would have gotten some of those foul calls. And I'm not just saying this because I'm a bitter Pistons fan. Sixty-year-old officials should not be officiating 20-something-year-old professional athletes.
-- Paul, Detroit, Mich.

Have you ever, I mean EVER, seen a guy get more calls than Wade in Game 5? As staggering as it is to even think it, much less say it out loud, this surpasses the level of calls Jordan used to get in the playoffs. Simply AMAZING. I am a die-hard NBA fan, and I understand and accept the whole "stars get calls" factor, but this is an insane new level. Every time Wade falls down (even if not touched) he gets a call. You called it in your preview, the refs were gonna give some games to Miami, and they did.
-- Jonathan, Raleigh, N.C.

Please admit to everyone that the treatment Dwyane Wade is receiving is absolutely absurd. The final play in Game 5 summed it up: He commits a backcourt violation, pushes off on Terry, then goes wildly to the bucket and gets bailed out on a phantom foul call. Is what the NBA has to do to create its star of the future?
-- Mark, Chicago

I watch very little NBA basketball, however, as the playoffs have been playing out, I have found myself watching more and more games, becoming more interested. Then comes the Finals and I feel like I am watching pro wrestling, except I can fool myself into thinking those matches aren't fixed. At least it makes the NBA the easiest sport to gamble on.
-- Jeremy Louden, Cincinnati

I want to say something about Dwayne Wade, but I fear I may get called for a foul.
-- Warren, Ludington, Mich.

Unfortunately you were right that the NBA finals could come down to the officials. David Stern would rather choke to death on his own vomit than hand Mark Cuban the trophy. It's clear he instructed the refs to take an active interest in the outcomes of the games. Every time Wade drives the lane the refs call a foul on whoever is closest.
-- Jeff, Baltimore

After witnessing the Game 5 debacle, I am absolutely convinced that Stern is trying to fix the Finals for DWade and the Heat. Stackhouse's suspension, Dirk's phantom foul in OT, and then Joey Crawford's inexplicable call for a Mavs timeout -- it all adds up too perfectly. This could be a conspiracy as far-reaching as Watergate. I can already imagine the inevitable ESPN movie, "All The Commissioner's Men," where a stubborn, upstart young sports columnist brings down Stern and the entire NBA hierarchy. So, Simmons, the only question is: Will you be our Bob Woodward?
-- Robert P., Topeka, Kan.

All the comparisons between Wade and Jordan need to stop right now. There's no way Jordan would have gotten that call in the final seconds of Game 5.
-- Chris Richardson, Charleston, W.V.

• Speaking of the refs, Game 5 of the Finals took its rightful place alongside Game 7 of the Seattle-Phoenix series in 1993, Game 6 of the Kings-Lakers series in 2002, Game 5 of the Knicks-Celtics series in 1973 and some of the other famous entries in the Pantheon of One-Sided Officiated Games. We're running some e-mails in a sidebar (look to the right), but you know it's bad when the owner of the losing team runs out onto the floor to stare down the commissioner after the game -- the last time that happened at a sporting event, Vince McMahon was involved.
(FYI: In today's Miami Herald, Greg Cote writes that Cuban was screaming profanely at referee Joe DeRosa right after the game, "then turned to Stern and other NBA officials who were seated at the scorer's table and was overheard to shout venomously in the jubilant din, '[Bleep] you! [Bleep] you! Your league is rigged!'" Remember when I wrote that, on a scale of 1-to-10 about being excited for the moment when Stern handed Cuban the trophy, I was a 35? Now I'm a 72. Although Cuban did deny saying this on his blog.)
I tackled this in a Cowbell blog last year, but it's worth rehashing again: The NBA doesn't fix games. That's impossible. And stupid. It could never happen. (Well, except for the Hubert Davis game -- that was fixed. Just kidding. Kind of.) A few months ago, I looked David Stern in the eye and asked him about the ongoing officiating problems, and he seemed agonized enough about it that I actually believed him. Unless he was pulling a DeNiro-level acting performance on me. Which I doubt. But there are three major problems here.
First, Dwyane Wade shot as many free throws (25) as the entire Dallas team in Game 5. I just don't see how there's any way this can happen in a fairly-called game. It's theoretically impossible.
Second, everyone knew the officiating would be a problem heading into this series because of Cuban's past problems with the league. In my Finals preview, I wrote that "No team depends on the refs quite like the Heat. When the refs are calling all the bumps on Shaq and protecting Wade on every drive, they're unstoppable. When they're calling everything fairly, they're eminently beatable. If they're not getting any calls, they're just about hopeless. I could see the refs swinging two games in Miami's favor during this series, possibly three. In fact, I'm already depressed about it and the series hasn't even started yet." Well, we had our two games -- Game 3 (the last five minutes were just obscene) and Game 5 (again, a top-five debacle). And the series isn't over yet.
Third, here's a theory on referees that I described in a blog last spring:
"I don't think the NBA fixes games, but they have one trick that they use for situations like this -- when they want a home team to win the game, they invariably assign the worst referees possible to that game for two reasons: Bad referees have a tendency to get swayed by the home crowd, and bad referees never have the stones to make a tough call on the road. In a related story, I went to 35 Clippers games this year and kept a list of the referees in my pocket which I also used to follow the referees for any televised games. And yes, the referees in the NBA -- as a whole -- have never been worse. But there were six referees that stuck out as being especially terrible."
Then I went on to list the worst six referees. Here was No. 2 on the list:
"2. Bennett Salvatore -- Always one of the worst, he took it to another level this season. If you see him on the court at the start of the game, get ready for about six technicals, two near-brawls and both coaches having to be restrained by their assistants at various times."
Why is this relevant? Not only did Salvatore officiate Game 4 of the Suns-Lakers series (the one where Kobe tied it at the end of regulation and won it at the end of OT on two shaky non-calls on Nash, both by Salvatore), not only did Salvatore officiate Sunday night's Game 5 (in which Miami had a 40-12 free-throw advantage at one point), but Salvatore called the foul on Wade's final drive in overtime (remember, the call where ABC couldn't find a replay to show that anyone touched him?) even though he was standing at midcourt a full 35-40 feet from the play, and even though two other refs were closer to the play. Not only was that NOT his call, he butchered it.
Considering I brought this up LAST spring, do you find any of this a little strange? Why aren't the best referees calling these games? Why do the worst ones always seem to get assigned to games in which it would be better for the league if the home team won? Why am I the only one who notices this stuff or seems to care? Why do I find myself watching these games and concentrating more on the one-sided officiating than some of Wade's spectacular plays? As my buddy House e-mailed on Monday morning: "I don't think I can take much more of NBA refs insisting on controlling the outcomes of the most significant games. The NBA is a disgrace and should be completely embarrassed. I hate this game."
And that's coming from one of the last 20 NBA diehards -- I can only imagine what the casual fans thought after watching such a one-sided travesty. Look, we all love Dwyane Wade. He's fantastic. But there's absolutely no scenario in which a 2-guard should be attempting as many free throws as everyone on the other team. It's absolutely unfathomable. And here's what really kills me: If there's a Game 7, you KNOW they'll come up with the best possible officials for that particular game. So why wouldn't every Finals game work like that? We have seven possible games spread over 17 days ... they couldn't pick the best three or four refs and have them work every game, like how MLB picks the best seven umps to comprise the World Series crew? Why wouldn't that work? Is there a single reason you can come up with? Arrrrrrrrgh.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on and in bookstores everywhere.
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