There’s No Sense In The Lakers Crying Over The Unavoidable
5:16 PM EST on January 30, 2023
Jayson Tatum fouled LeBron James. That much is beyond dispute. With the Lakers-Celtics game tied at 105, James drove past Malcolm Brogdon to the hoop. Tatum collapsed on him to help from the strong side, and as James rose up, Tatum smacked James's left hand. The clear foul was not called, and the Celtics would go on to win in overtime, sparking a protracted, hilarious saga.
That all happened on Saturday night, but because of the principles involved, the pattern of late calls that have gone against the Lakers, and the severity of the protest against the missed call, the drama surrounding the game has somehow continued to intensify. Immediately after regulation ended, James crumpled to his knees, hitting the deck for nearly a full minute in disbelief as his teammates came out to console him. Patrick Beverley, master of subtlety and gamesmanship, grabbed a photographer's camera and showed one of the officials something on the screen, earning a technical foul and starting his team off one point in the hole in overtime.
After the game, every Laker who spoke to the media was so mad. "It's bullshit," Anthony Davis said. "It's unacceptable. And I guarantee nothing is going to happen to the refs. We got cheated tonight, honestly." Davis also floated the idea of fining referees for missing critical calls. Head coach Darvin Ham, usually unflappable, was flapped as hell. "As much as you try not to put it on the officiating, it's becoming increasingly difficult," Ham said. "The best player on Earth can't get a call. It's amazing ... Those guys that play physical and really try to focus on finishing plays, sometimes it doesn't go in their favor. But then you see other guys whimpering on every shot or every time they get bumped ... and they are the ones getting the whistles."
James, who publicly staked out the position that the Lakers were being unfairly targeted by referees two weeks ago, expressed his bafflement. "I don't get it," he said. "I'm attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that's shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don't get it. I don't understand it. I watch basketball every single day. I watch games every single day. And I don't see it happening to nobody else. It's just weird."
The referees missed the call on Tatum, which cost the Lakers a landmark win. They admitted it afterwards, identifying Tatum's foul as one of the three missed calls during the last two minutes of regulation and overtime. The other two incorrect calls identified in the report went against the Celtics, which doesn't nullify the Lakers' protest (neither of those calls decided the game) as much as highlight how difficult and frustrating it is to officiate a game or be officiated. The day after the game, the referees' union took the rare step of apologizing and admitting that the missed call would "cause sleepless nights."
Referees admitting a mistake after the fact never really brings any satisfaction, because what matters are outcomes. The Lakers have suffered a handful of close losses over the past month, which, as ESPN's Dave McMenamin pointed out, could have gone the other way if different calls had been made.
The loss dropped the Lakers to 23-27, 13th in the Western Conference. If they had won the four recent games they disputed the officiating against Dallas, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Boston, a 27-23 record would put them at No. 4 in the West.
That is both technically true and also a fairly ridiculous line of logic to hew to. Every team in the NBA would have a different record if different things happened. If I had picked the correct Mega Millions numbers in 2018, I would not be writing this blog; I would be on my way to Minnesota to watch my favorite NBA team lose tonight. Every team in the NBA has a legitimate case to be mad about at least one outcome at the end of one of their games this season. Also, this is a regular season game, and far more egregious missed calls have decided far more important contests (I am legally barred from encouraging anyone to conduct a search for "2002 western conference finals nba what really happened.") This is how basketball works, how sports work, and as maddening as that is, there aren't any ways to square these contradictions that don't open up more maddening avenues of complaint. The NBA has embraced replay review, and bad calls still decide games. Big-time soccer has VAR now, which, wow, has not solved every problem. There is no getting it perfect.
The Lakers have a right to be mad here, but unless you are a Lakers fan, the Western Conference's 13th-placed team going this hard over a single loss and assuming the most aggrieved possible posture is quite funny. If it's true that any outcome that hinges on an officiating decision is necessarily going to be frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying, it is also true that over the course of both an individual 200-possession game and an 82-game season, things tend to even out. But the law of large numbers isn't reassuring at all when the call is that clear, and I think that while the Lakers would probably be able to take the long view if they were having a normal season, they're an agitated 23-27, so this distinct complaint is really the culmination of 50 games worth of angsty underachievement.
The Lakers have the 24th-best point differential in the NBA. They have the league's 18th-ranked defense and 19th-ranked offense. They're 12-17 against the Western Conference.The luck and expected win-loss numbers all say their record is in line with statistical expectations. The people most responsible for that are the ones in the gold and purple jerseys, not the ones wearing black and white stripes.