I've been watching NBA games for a very, very long time. But last night's Blazers game left me wondering whether I've been really seeing the game at all--or rather, whether I've been letting myself see it.
The difference in the way Tuesday's and Wednesday's Blazer games were officiated just seemed so dramatic to me. Awhile back, 'sheed said the NBA is as fake as pro wrestling. He was saying this in reference to the league's supposed favoritism towards certain teams--in this case, LeBron James and the Cavs. (And I didn't buy it; I'd felt the Cavs beat the Pistons fair & square last year.) But after last night, I'm wondering if the NBA isn't indeed fake--not so much in the sense of pro wresting as of a Harlem Globetrotters game. No one wants to see the Washington Generals (the "road team") do their thing--much less win the game.
When an NBA team plays at home, they're allowed to body up, set picks, even swipe at the ball. The Blazers did all that on Tuesday night against the Pistons. But the moment Wednesday's game vs the Nuggets began, everything was different. It was like the Blazers had fallen thru a wormhole into an evil alternate universe. Suddenly they couldn't set a pick--no matter how early they set it or how stationary it was--without being called for a foul. (This happened to both Pryz and Aldridge.) And on the offensive end, they couldn't venture into the paint--or even roam the perimeter--without being slammed or raked across their arms (with no foul called). Short of tucking the ball away like a football player, there was no way for them to avoid being stripped by the Nuggets. (The fact that the Nuggets are a stronger, more physical club just added to the Blazers' disadvantage.)
Of course, there's a logic to officiating games this way. Home crowds--like Globetrotter audiences--don't pay money to see their teams lose. Certainly, they don't pay money to see their teams' offense stopped by tough defense. And it's very much in the interests of the league to have crowds go home happy--that way, they're likely to attend future games. How then do road teams EVER win? Well, they must play MUCH better than the home team. First and foremost, they absolutely must shoot the ball well, and do so early on. If your outside shots aren't falling, you might as well pack it in. To win on the road--unless you're one of the league's annointed glamour franchises--you're going to have to outshoot the home team. Also, you need to be able to score while being hacked. You're not going to be allowed to stop the home team defensively and score your own points by driving and going to the foul line.
If you watched the Blazers fall apart last night, you might argue that they just played badly. They made dumb turnovers, and they stopped taking the ball inside early on. But when you're not allowed to play defense, and the opposition is allowed to foul you at will, inevitably you'll become passive and tentative. Then the announcers will pronounce: "the Nuggets [or whoever] are getting the calls because they're the aggressors." Well, yeah! They're more aggressive because they're being allowed to play that way.
The fact is, even the league has had to acknowledge that NBA officials favor the home team. In the course of last year's Donaghy scandal, it came out that the NBA categorizes its officials according to how resistant they are to the influence of the home crowd. But that doesn't mean the league wants to eliminate "home cooking"--otherwise, those officials who the league identifies as "homers" would be fired. Rather, I believe, the league just wants to keep the homerism within limits, so that t.v. audiences don't get turned off and so that road teams don't just quit competing--ala those Washington Generals.
Last night, all this seemed so blatant to me. Have I been turning a blind eye all these years--the way you "suspend disbelief" in order to be entertained by a movie or t.v. show? Or was I just having a bad night like the Blazers were? I don't know; what do you think?