Monday, April 30, 2018

Why the Toronto Raptors Will Not Make the NBA Finals

If you watched Game 7 of the Cavaliers-Pacers series, you probably had the grim realization that the NBA still engineers the outcomes of certain events. Specifically, when a marquee player or team is in a playoff series against a team with less ratings appeal (i.e. no stars), there is a tendency for the star's team to receive preferential treatment from the officials. In this case, LeBron James and the Cavaliers shot 40 free throws to the Pacers 24, helping the league and ESPN avoid the indignity of a second-round series between the Pacers and Raptors.

For those that have followed the league for years, this is not anything new. The Lakers were beneficiaries of questionable officiating in two separate Conference Finals: Game 7 against Phoenix in 2000 and Game 6 against Sacramento in 2002. In that second instance, Michael Wilbon wrote in the Washington Post that "six calls that were stunningly incorrect, all against Sacramento, all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots".  The Lakers enjoyed a 40-25 advantage from the line, eerily similar to the 40-24 discrepancy in the Cavaliers win.

I could go on with Game 5 of the NBA finals (Miami has 49 FTs to 25 for Dallas, owned by league critic Mark Cuban) or the Game 1 of the 2014 series between Brooklyn and Toronto. That link refers to claims made by the most famous referee of all, Tim Donaghy. Jailed for betting on games he officiated, Donaghy seems to make an appearance every few years to accuse the league of masterminding the playoffs. Such a statement implies a conspiracy, which is most definitely not the case. There is no need for conspiracy because those involved know what has to be done, as I wrote after attending a game in that series. With Toronto up 3-2, the league ensured a Game 7 with a 25-14 foul discrepancy in favour of the Nets in Game 6, which was the game I unfortunately paid to see. In Game 7, however, the Raptors ended up with more free throws (33-30) and still had a chance to win with a final shot, after falling behind by 12. That game was the first step in developing the narrative that they are playoff chokers, a story that will come in handy when they are eliminated this year. And they will be, either by Cleveland or Philadelphia.

Critics of this theory point to the success of the San Antonio Spurs and failure of the New York Knicks as reasons why the league clearly doesn't rig things. First, the NBA leadership cares about the playoffs, when ratings are higher, and they want to see star players in the later rounds. The league has done a brilliant job of ensuring that small-market clubs like Cleveland are ratings winners due to players like LeBron. What mattered yesterday is that LeBron advanced to the next round, and that is what happened.

In case you think that one game is too small a sample size, look back in the series. When the Pacers won Game 1, the NBA knew they had a problem and had to ensure that the Cavaliers won a game in Indiana. In Game 4, down 2-1, the Cavs squeaked out a 100-97 win thanks to 26 FTs, double Indiana's total. Make no mistake; Indiana is the better team, outscoring the Cavs by 40 points over 7 games, the largest differential by a losing team since 1984. But the average fan wants to see a star rather than a good team and the NBA needs as many eyeballs as possible.

So although the Raptors are the first seed, they will be watching the NBA finals from the sidelines. DeMar and Kyle are not big enough names to get them to the promised land. How will it happen? Cleveland is not a good team and it will be tough for the league to engineer more than one upset, but they will try. Look for biased officiating in Game 1 or 2 in Toronto, just enough to give Cleveland a road win and then they might be able to sweep their games at home. If Toronto still prevails, then Ben Simmons and the 76ers will knock them off, again with one-sided officiating in at least one game at the Air Canada Centre.

If you expect ESPN to take note of this, well, you aren't paying attention. When ESPN got into bed with the NBA, all of their basketball reporters sacrificed their objectivity for hype. LeBron's performance was enthusiastically described as epic (45-9-7 is certainly impressive but he finished -2 on the night, the only Cavs starter with a negative +/-) but I found no mention of the free throw discrepancy in any of their main articles about the game. Clearly, they cannot bite the hand that will be feeding them until 2024-25. But hey, if you want to know who had the best sneakers in the first round, ESPN has got you covered.  And when Toronto loses, expect ESPN to lead with the repeated playoff collapse story and ignore anything related to the officiating.

I really hope I'm wrong on this one and will gladly admit so if the Raptors end up in the finals. But if they don't, those that still believe the NBA is somehow not rigged will have to realize that nothing has changed since 2000.

Update: Well, the Raptors made me look like an idiot in Game 1, choking away the lead in the fourth quarter, where they shot 20%. Of course, if you look at the other side, the fact that Kevin Love's swinging elbow wasn't reviewed and only upgraded to a flagrant foul the next day could be a sign that the refs were happy to keep the Cavs comeback going. But no, I'm not believing that. The Raptors blew it, plain and simple. The NBA has nothing to worry about.

Update 2: I should have titled this post "Why the Cavs and Warriors Will Make the NBA Finals". 4th year in a row. What a surprise. ESPN says we should appreciate the result (see above about the ESPN-NBA relationship). No, we should be tired of it. I did not watch much of the conference championships, so I don't know how the NBA managed to get the matchup they (and ESPN) wanted, but they did. It was fun to read all the rigged comments over both Game 7s. Basketball is a relatively easy game to manipulate through officiating as fouls are mostly judgemental and I'm convinced that the league knows how to get the result they want. A Rockets fan went through the trouble to post all 9 "missed" fouls on YouTube, so who knows. But it is certainly suspicious when two home teams play so poorly in Game 7. Thankfully the Stanley Cup Final is compelling because the NBA is anything but.



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