After blowing out the Lakers in Game 1 and rallying to win Game 2, the Thunder were prepared to go up a decisive 3-0 in LA, setting up an epic Western Conference Finals against their small market facsimile in San Antonio.
OKC vs. San Antonio! The flyover finals!
With a likely Indiana vs. Philly/Boston matchup in the East!
Can you hear the sound of the channel being flipped? The NBA can.
Weathering early LA energy and desperation, as well as heavy minutes from LA's starters, the Thunder were up 70-69 at the end of 3. Poised to separate themselves in the 4th quarter with young legs and a deeper bench as they had all year.
Then the NBA happened. Then Joey Crawford happened.
You know Joey Crawford.
Yeah, that guy. And let's not forget that's he's a convicted tax cheat who served 6 months of house arrest and three years probation for lying and misreporting income. The guy who kicked Tim Duncan out of a game and challenged him to a fight after Tim Duncan couldn't stop laughing at his awfulness while sitting on the Spurs bench. Tim Duncan was literally kicked out of a basketball game for giggling. That also earned Joey a suspension, but Stern reinstated him, as he did after his IRS fraud, after Crawford agreed to double up on his psychologist's visits. In a role where basic ethical fiber and self-control are paramount, this is the stuff of fiction.
The league's Man in Havana was dispatched to the land of starfuck to do what he do. And what he do is make sure that NBA series run a respectable course in major market cities. No one tells him to do it. No one picks up the phone and commands it to be so. It's implicitly understood that the guy who owes David Stern his continued livelihood (Crawford's repeated ethical offenses on and off the court would have him banned from any credible professional league) will be a company man when the time requires.
Or maybe Kendrick Perkins fixed him with a "fuck you" stare in the late 3rd quarter and he decided to offer some payback. I never rule out pettiness as Crawford's motivation.
Jesus made water into wine, but his officiating crew conjured 49 second half points for the Lakers on 11 made baskets. What's the more impressive feat? I'm not sure which JC to choose.
Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant combined to go 11 of 38 (28.9%) from the floor, but managed 29 of 30 from the free throw line. The Thunder racked up 30 personal fouls, with 5 on James Harden, who fouls sparingly, and 5 on Nazr Mohammed in just 13 minutes, with Harden receiving two phantom calls defending Kobe down the stretch. While the Thunder were being held to defensive standards of accountability that you'd expect in a girl's junior high game, Metta World Peace was clutching Kevin Durant like a three year old dropped off at daycare.
Tom Ziller of SBNation.com explains:
Kobe drew a foul on James Harden ... 23 feet from the basket ... where Bryant posed no threat. It would have been a really awful foul ... if it were a foul at all. It was one of the more ticky-tack fouls you'll see, just some light contact that could have been incidental and certainly didn't disadvantage the Lakers in any way.
The Thunder were in the penalty, and Kobe hit both. In the fourth, the Lakers scored 30. Seventeen of those came on 18 free throw attempts; the Lakers got to the line for a pair in nine possessions, and got 17 points out of it, or 1.9 points per possession. L.A. scored 13 points on 17 official shots from the floor in the fourth, or 0.8 points per possession. The Lakers had trouble scoring when they were not at the line in the fourth quarter on Friday, and that awful foul class basically gave L.A. an extra point.
That's all L.A. needed.
This isn't Thunder apologia. Well, it is. But it doesn't mean it's wrong.
This is an example of a league picking and choosing winners. It gives the NBA a bush league, arbitrary quality you just don't see outside of boxing and World Cup soccer. The NBA is a magnificent sport, blessed with arguably the greatest crop of young talent and older stars in its history, it's spectator friendly, the athletes are the best on the planet; but predestination by whistle (and a proven history of game fixing with Tim Donaghy) threatens to render it as nothing more than an athletic display.
Carry on David Stern. Just don't call it a basketball game. That fourth quarter was basketball theater.