Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why I Hate Utah

It's one thing to lose a basketball game. It's another thing to lose to a dirty team. When you feel like your team got jobbed on virtually every play, as officials swallow their whistles or referee the two sides of the court inconsistently, it feels like a punch in the stomach. It leaves you feeling angry and demoralized, like the sport has been tarnished.

Playing Utah feels bad. Even when the Lakers win, I feel relieved that no one got hurt. It feels like the good guys won - the team playing real basketball, rather than some thuggish brand of rugby. And when the bad guys win, it's sad to see the good guys changing how they play. No more passing to the guy open underneath, because you know he's going to get crushed with no call. No more hard fouls at the basket, because your player will get thrown out of the game.

I hate whining about the referees, and it isn't really their fault. The Utah strategy is quite simple - referees can't call every foul, and they don't want to award one team 100 free throws a game. Thus, if you push in the back on every rebound, you'll get away with it most of the time. If you hack and grab and hold, you slow down the other team. You also anger them, and maybe a few plays later they will retaliate - and the refs will whistle that, since they want to be "fair" by calling fouls on both teams. And it's an effective strategy, especially in Utah, where the refs seem to be swayed by the crowd.

But it's a disgusting strategy. It's not basketball. I've played basketball for as long as I can remember, and everyone gets away with things on the basketball court. I've nudged a bigger player in the back, knowing that most of the time it'll help me get the rebound. I've slapped at the ball and gotten nothing but arm. And I've pushed off a defender to get a little extra space off a curl or to get a pass on an inbounds play. But I've never considered grabbing my defender and throwing him into a pick. The Jazz do. I've never pushed off when no advantage can be gained. The Jazz do, just to be "physical." These are not basketball plays. The level of grabbing that the Jazz do is unprecedented.

And the thing is, we've seen it for 25 years now. Stockton, Malone, Hornacek, Foster, Ostertag - that whole crew did it. Now Williams, Boozer, Okur, Kirilenko, Harpring (oh how I hate Harpring) do it. I didn't use to think Jerry Sloan was a dirty coach. Now, there's no other explanation.

Being physical is one thing. Being dirty is another. If the Lakers lose this series, it'll be more because of Kobe's back, Sasha's toe, and Bynum's knee than the referees. Players have to adjust to the officiating, and Game 4 would have been won with a healthy Kobe. But some small part will be because the Jazz are coached to play dirty basketball. And the fact that dirty basketball wins over unselfish, flowing, artistic basketball is something that should not be allowed.

Yes, Mr. Harpring, it's a foul to deck someone. No matter whether it's called or not, it's not part of basketball.

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