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Dan Bickley

Questioning refs a part of the full NBA Finals experience

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Urine sample collector. Little League umpire. Stall cleaner at the Kentucky Derby. These are some of the worst jobs in sports.

Nothing is more brutal than being an NBA official. Especially during the playoffs.

That’s because fans are obsessed with conspiracy theories. Coaches voice their complaints through the media and not proper backchannels. Players attempt to fool officials on the court by flopping or falling down after shots.

Chris Paul has even intimated that a NBA crew chief, Scott Foster, carries a personal vendetta against the Suns star. And in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the officials are under a familiar microscope.

Consider this exchange between a media member and Suns head coach Monty Williams on Tuesday:

Q: After the last game you said you didn’t want to complain about the fouls but then you kind of did in the next sentence. So I’m curious the reason for that?

A: Is that a jab (at me) or some way of like …

Q: No, no, I’m just curious the reason for bringing that up at a press conference is what?

A: Well, somebody asked me the question. Like, ‘How can I help DA?’ So I answered it. And then the free throw disparity is what it is. So that’s what I did. They had one player with 17 free throws; we had 16. That’s not complaining. That’s stating facts.

Williams knows better. He was certainly sending a message about the physicality of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and how he frequently initiates contact, occasionally steamrolling his opponents. The Bucks star is creating the same philosophical dilemma that came with officiating important games involving Shaquille O’Neal and defenders who were physically overmatched, forced to literally scratch and claw just to survive.

Paul also sent his own message after Game 3, comparing Giannis’ approach to a NFL running back lowering his shoulder and hitting a hole. His point? This isn’t football.

There’s also a danger in this approach. There is very little chance that Giannis suddenly starts accumulating offensive fouls. Not when he’s scored 40 or more points in consecutive games. Not when his wrecking ball, superhero dominance is exactly what the NBA loves in its showcase event.

On Tuesday, Giannis also said he’s received as much abuse as he’s doled out against the Suns, and that he wasn’t aware of Williams’ attempt at gamesmanship.

“No. I don’t have social media,” Antetokounmpo said. “I have it, but I’m not on it. So I don’t follow quotes after the games about the coaches or us or my coach. I don’t follow that. But I think I take a pretty good beating down there. I have a scratch right here and a scratch right here. So they’re making my pretty face ugly.”

For Williams, there is also the danger of getting in his own team’s head. He has been extremely shrewd on this issue in the past, recognizing his team’s youth and occasional bouts of hot-headed petulance. In most cases, he does not want his team focusing on free throw disparities, referees and the inevitable assortment of missed calls.

But when the stakes are this high, it is also a mind game that must be played. Even by reasonable man like Williams.

“It’s like the age-old ritual of the playoffs,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I guess historically or experience-wise, I don’t know that it has any impact and probably could argue I’ve seen it both ways. Some organizations, some players, some teams actually feel like they’re penalized for doing it.

“At the end of the day, I actually think the referees just call the game. They call the game and coaches go and talk about the game, and we’ll do the same thing after tomorrow night’s game. We have the best referees in the world and we’re always still frustrated with them. They’re still the best in the world. It seems like (the complaining) is always the same, and I don’t think it has any impact on the game.”

He’s right. Except Budenholzer was also the guy questioning the officials after Game 1.

They say a playoff series doesn’t begin until the road team wins a game. They also say it doesn’t begin until both coaches complain about the officiating.

Consider the NBA Finals properly underway.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier