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Darko Rajakovic Gets His Money’s Worth In Postgame Rant

11:31 AM EST on January 10, 2024

The Los Angeles Lakers attempted 23 free throws in the final frame of their narrow victory Tuesday night over the Toronto Raptors. For a single quarter of basketball, that is a lot of free throws; 16 of the league's 30 teams average fewer than 23 free throws per game. The Raptors, meanwhile, attempted 13 total free throws in the one-point loss, and just two in the fourth quarter. Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic saw this discrepancy on the box score and steam erupted from his ear canals. It was still piping noisily from several of his orifices when he met with assembled media.

The garden variety postgame gripe from players and coaches—which will normally cost the griper a cool $30,000 in fines—centers on referee incompetence. For example, Paul George, a frequent outspoken officiating critic, was dinged in November for complaining that referees had done "a poor job" and "were awful" in an in-season tournament game. Notably, George did not suggest or imply that the referees participated in a league-level effort to rig a contest. Generally speaking, if you have some personal expenses that require the funds from your next paycheck, it is wise to stop short of alleging conspiracy.

Rajakovic's cathartic, bug-eyed rant blew past that boundary, with gusto. "This is completely B.S. This is shame," said an enraged Rajakovic, occasionally pounding the table for emphasis. "They had to win tonight? If that's the case just let us know so we don't show up for the game. Just give them the win. That was not fair tonight." Rajakovic was particularly cheesed off that Anthony Davis and LeBron James seemed to be getting the superstar treatment, whereas his guys, and in particular ascending third-year swingman Scottie Barnes, were forced to play through contact. "How is possible that Scottie Barnes, who is All-Star-caliber player in this league—he goes every single time to the rim with force, and trying to get to the rim without flopping and not trying to get foul calls—he gets two free throws for the whole game? How is that possible?"

Watching the game unfold, it was possible to miss entirely that one side might have a particular complaint about officiating. With four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers had taken 17 free throws to Toronto's 13. And the referees, to their enormous credit, had mostly ignored the stretch of the third quarter when James started spamming the "HEY" button on forays into the paint. Things swung wildly in the closing minutes: From the four-minute mark until the final buzzer, the Lakers took a whopping 19 free throws, and the Raptors took zero. That looks bad! Eight of those free throws were from take fouls, times when Raptors defenders used fouls to stop the clock. Another Davis trip to the stripe came after Pascal Siakam indisputably shoved him in order to avert a dunk. Another two came on an Immanuel Quickley flagrant foul. Two of the shooting fouls were soft, but not appallingly so, and benefited a pair of Lakers non-stars.

This is not to say that Rajakovic is wrong, at least to the extent that his complaint is less about Los Angeles's parade to the line and has more to do with his own team's relative lack of free throws. It did not appear that the Raptors were getting jobbed, but whether Rajakovic is factually correct is less important for the Raptors than whether this was the right way for him to throw away a paycheck. In that regard, he seems to have hit the bullseye. "It just says that he's all for us, he's all for us as a family, as a team," said veteran forward Thaddeus Young, who was forced to start at center against Anthony freaking Davis due to Jakob Poeltl's ankle injury. "He's gonna continue to fight for us. We love Darko to death. We definitely think the world of Coach, and we appreciate him going to bat for us."

The Raptors have had a tough season. They're stuck below the play-in zone and casting about for answers, and in a sign of the organization's dissatisfaction with the status quo they've already traded away one of their best players. They've got a restless front office, and some complicated and potentially painful decisions to make about their future. Amid all that, their rookie head coach is trying to stoke the few sparks of momentum that seem to have materialized since OG Anunoby was dealt away to the Knicks on New Year's Eve. The Raptors won three of four over a succession of competent opponents heading into Tuesday's game, but are now at the midpoint of a demanding six-game swing through the Western Conference. The trade deadline is a month off; if Rajakovic wants to spend springtime playing for anything better than draft lottery positioning, he's got to get his team pointed in the right direction right now.

Not that unloading on the referees will necessarily do the job, but there are worse ways of spending a postgame presser than gassing up your best remaining players at the expense of your own folding money.

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