NBA or WWE?

The NBA Finals are finally interesting.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Los Angeles Lakers benefitted from a winning combo of home court and healthy desperation to dispatch Boston 87-81 last night; cutting the Celtics’ series lead to 2-1 in the process. And if, while watching, you started having flashbacks of the Heat-Mavs Finals from ’06, well, let’s just say you weren’t the only one.

But that wasn’t the real story from the NBA last night. Disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy’s legal team dropped a bombshell on the league yesterday, via a letter alleging refs altered playoff games and series; including the Houston Rockets’ first-round match-up with Dallas back in 2005. The letter doesn’t come right out and name the Rockets and Mavs per se, but those possessing a memory slightly greater than that of a goldfish should be able to figure out the principals involved:

"Team 3 lost the first two games in the series and Team 3's owner complained to NBA officials," the letter said. "Team 3's owner alleged that referees were letting a Team 4 player get away with illegal screens. NBA Executive Y told Referee Supervisor Z that the referees for that game were to enforce the screening rules strictly against that Team 4 player. Referee Supervisor Z informed the referees about his instructions. As an alternate referee for that game, Tim also received these instructions."

The owner in question, of course, is Mavs’ main man Mark Cuban who complained about Yao Ming’s screen-setting after Dallas lost the first two games of the series. When the refs seemingly targeted Yao from that point on, Jeff Van Gundy, then the coach of the Rockets, said that a working referee had told him about the league's plan to closely monitor Yao, and JVG was eventually fined $100,000 for his insolence. Oh, by the way, Dallas went on to win the series, four games to three.

Van Gundy, now an analyst for ESPN, was asked for his reaction to the big news during halftime of last night’s game. His response in a nutshell: While he still thinks Yao was unfairly targeted, JVG doesn’t want to lend credibility to the allegations of a convicted felon. Of course, one can’t even begin to count the number of conflicts of interest surrounding Van Gundy right now. Let’s just put it this way: If JVG ever wants to coach in Stern’s league again, it would behoove him to toe the company line on this one.

So what does this mean for the Rockets? Not a whole helluva lot, obviously, outside of giving fans a reason to get riled up all over again. But let’s not forget, it wasn’t the referees who caused Houston to no-show for Game 7 en route to a 40-point massacre at the hands of the Mavs.

And let’s face it, does this really come as a surprise to anyone? For decades, it’s been quite obvious to even the most rational fan that the NBA operates on a star-driven system where the best players get the vast majority of the crunch-time calls, and officials are easily persuaded to alter their whistles based upon who has home court and who whines loudest. And claims that the league does its best to manipulate playoff results in order to ensure long series and the advancement of big market teams aren’t new either.

Not surprisingly, Stern is doing his best to sweep this story under the rug and dismiss it by using the tried-and-true “This guy’s a felon and known liar, so why should anyone believe him” defense. Ummm, David, ask Roger Clemens how that strategy worked out for him. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Do you discount mob informants because of their history of murder, money laundering and the like? Do you discount Jose Canseco just because he's a jerk? Simply being a bad guy doesn't mean you can't shed little nuggets of truth every now and then.

If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel to all this, it’s that the NBA is now learning the hard way—just like MLB with steroids and the NFL with Spygate—that we all must lie in the beds we make, no matter how powerful you become. This is a problem the league brought upon itself, and if it requires a serious black eye to bring about full disclosure and more of an open door policy in the future, then so be it.

By the way, after L.A. (perhaps rightfully) cried foul about Boston’s 38-10 disparity from the free throw line in Game 2, the Lakers went to the stripe 12 more times than the Celtics last night. Surprised? Didn’t think so.

Some things never change. - Jason Friedman

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