OK, can we all now admit the first round of these NBA playoffs was a little tame? Sure, there were tidbits of drama here and there, but at the end, all eight series went chalk, with nary a seven-game series and few in serious doubt beyond Game 3.
In addition to the shortage of second-week intrigue, there just wasn’t a lot of fire. Boston-Brooklyn got a little heated, but even that was more between Kyrie Irving and the Celtics’ fans than anything nasty brewing on the court.
Now, this second round, on the other hand … this is the playoffs.
As our David Aldridge already notedthe bruising, defense-first ugliness of Milwaukee-Boston Game 3 was its own special kind of playoff excellence that demands the combatants raise their level.
But an even deeper current than that is running through this second round, and it’s one of mutual distaste bordering on hatred. These teams have quickly discovered that they don’t like each other very much, and they don’t like the referees even more. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, and the more these teams see each other, the angrier they get at each other, and the crankier they get about officiating.
Historically, Game 4 is usually when hostilities peak in a playoff series; go back through history, and you’ll see virtually every playoff fracas of significance that happened in either Games 3, 4 or 5. Before that point, there isn’t enough enmity built up between the two sides; after that point, there’s just too much at stake.
That’s particularly true in series that are competitive, which all four conference semifinals are. Two of the series are tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5, while the other two are 2-1 in favor of the lower-seeded team. Given the stakes, it’s a scenario tailor-made for high levels of hostility.
In a related story … we’ve got ourselves some hostility. The volumes have raised to the point that the real star of this second round — shooting variance — can barely sneak a word in. It’s all a little ridiculous and desperate, but it’s also amazing. It’s also been amazing to see how quickly the energy has shifted from the opponents to the arbitrators of the rules. These teams might be playing each other, but right now, everybody has the refs in their crosshairs.
It doesn’t take much time on the interwebs to find reasons for complaints from all eight remaining teams. In some cases, the league itself provided the kindling. For instance, Boston and Milwaukee fans are apoplectic over a last two minutes report from Saturday’s Game 3 that contained five separate mistakesnot including the two plays many observers thought were mistakes but were judged by the league to be called correctly. The Celtics were particularly upset that a late foul against Marcus Smart was ruled to have occurred before he started his 3-point shooting motion and perplexed by the block-charge rule and how it applies to collisions between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Grant Williams.
The Bucks took half as many free throws as Boston, however, and in the time-honored playoff tradition, they tried offering a free-throw deficit as prima facie evidence that they were the wrong party in this game. Milwaukee GM Jon Horst poured gasoline on those sentiments with an early Festivus present, airing a series of grievances about the game with The Athletic’s Eric Nehm.
We’re really breaking some new ground here when an exec from the winning team risks a fine by referring to officiating as “outrageous” and embarking on a detailed breakdown of the ways in which his team was wronged. Once again, for the people in the back: A free-throw disparity is not some kind of smoking gun that your team got screwed, and there is no rule that requires the same number of fouls to be called on each team. In fact, often the opposite is the case: The free-throw difference is the canary in the coal mine that a team was outplayed.
Meanwhile, after a chippy Game 4 that evened the series, Dallas and Phoenix fans are outraged by the flopping of (select one: Luka Dončić, Devin Booker) and absolutely miffed by the officials’ unfair treatment of (select one: Dwight Powell, Chris Paul). The Suns and Mavs were ornery enough on Sunday that we had three technical fouls before halftime, including one play where Booker was fouled by Powell but also received a technical foul for hitting Powell.
Yet the series with the emotional dial turned highest might be the one between the Grizzlies and Warriors, one that featured flagrant foul ejections in each of the first two games. Hoping to keep that spirit alive, Golden State and Memphis fans spent their weekend angrily Zaprudering nothing plays involving Jordan Poole and Desmond Baneresolutely certain that each had set out to maim his opponent’s knees with malicious intent.
Of course, we dialed up to this point after Draymond Green’s left-right flagrant combo on Brandon Clarke in Game 1, and Memphis’ Dillon Brooks flagrantly fouling Gary Payton II on a breakaway in Game 2, knocking Payton out of the series with a broken elbow and earning Brooks a one-game suspension. The Grizzlies went suspension-fishing, to no avail, after Ja Morant’s knee was tweaked by Poole in Game 3, and Morant’s doubtful status for Game 4 as a result of that play adds another layer to the emotions.
All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned The Code. While Steve Kerr’s word choice Immediately conjures up images of “unwritten rules” and baseball managers raging in fury over improper stolen base etiquette in a five-run game, there is an underlying reality here. Getting hit from behind in mid-air on a fast break is every basketball player’s greatest fear, because all you can do is hope the inevitable violent meeting with the ground occurs in a way that doesn’t break any body parts upon impact.
And somehow, some way, the series everyone is complaining about the least is the one that involves shameless foul grifters James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry, and features Doc Rivers and PJ Tucker throwing their arms in the air after every whistle. That can’t possibly last, right?
While we’re here, a note on the zebras: Reffing playoff games is hard, y’all. The level of play doesn’t just step up for the players. Between the increased intensity, the greater willingness to take some chances players might not normally take and the increased incentive to gain a temporary advantage by hoodwinking an official, the level of challenge is far greater in these games than in the regular season.
Everybody is pushing the envelope as far as they can and leaving the onus on the officials to blow the whistle. In the same way, some players are fine in the regular season and get played off the floor in the playoffs, a not dissimilar thing that applies to the league’s officials. There’s a reason they cut the rotation as we get deeper into the postseason.
This past weekend’s playoff games have shown us why. Everyone is angry and desperate and pushing the rule book to the limit looking for any edge they can find. But it’s also what the playoffs are all about: Turning up the heat as high as possible and seeing who avoids burning up. Right now everybody is angry at everyone, and I love it.
(Photo: Ross Cameron / USA Today)