SAN ANTONIO — No player has been more dominant in the early stages of the NBA playoffs than San Antonio Spurs MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. But it took a 78-second postgame tirade by Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale to finally put the Western Conference first-round series between San Antonio and Memphis into the glare of the national spotlight.
Leonard has made 20 of 28 shots and 28 of 28 free throws in Games 1 and 2 (both Spurs wins). He leads all playoff scorers, averaging a small-sample 34.5 points per game. But his 19 foul shots in Game 2 exceeded the Grizzlies' team total (15), and that was too much for Fizdale to bear, so the series now has its own meme: #TakeThatForData.
Fizdale is hardly the first rookie coach to complain that an elite opponent with an elite coach is getting an unfair advantage from the league’s referees. In 1985, the 33-year-old rookie coach George Karl of the No. 8-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers railed against the breaks he believed the 63-19 Boston Celtics were getting from the officials in a best-of-five, first-round series that gave the defending NBA champs a real scare.
The Celtics won the series, but their three victories were by a total of seven points: 126-123, 108-106, and 117-115. Karl believed the Cavaliers would have won two of those had it not been for referees’ calls that benefited Boston.
“We had the lead in every game with three minutes to go, and we thought we lost a couple of those games with some very tough calls,” Karl recalled Wednesday. “I remember complaining about the refereeing after those games. Maybe not like [Fizdale] but pretty forceful. A few weeks later I was in Milwaukee having dinner with Nellie [Don Nelson] and Jack McMahon and John Killilea [Nelson’s assistant], and I was complaining all over again about the Celtics getting all the key calls.
“They said, ‘Who the hell are you? Get in line. That line is long.”
It was a lesson Karl never forgot.
“We all know the champions get more calls,” he said. “It’s like a heavyweight fighter who gets a title fight. You've got to knock the champ out, not beat them on points.”
The facts of NBA life, as explained by Nelson and other former coaches Bleacher Report interviewed, may be universally accepted, but Fizdale’s assertion that Gregg Popovich’s pedigree gives his team an unfair advantage over a team with a first-year coach is dangerous, according to P.J. Carlesimo. The former head coach, and Popovich’s top assistant from 2002-07, cautioned Fizdale about making his complaint seem personal.
“‘Fiz’ is treading on very, very thin ice,” Carlesimo said. “To even imply that the officials ref the Spurs differently, or Kawhi differently, is not a good place to go. I don’t know what he intended, but if he is implying the officials are not being fair because it’s Kawhi vs. Zach [Randolph] or David Fizdale vs. Gregg Popovich, that’s not something you want to be even hinting at.”
Obviously, NBA vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe agreed, as Fizdale’s $30,000 fine showed.
Fizdale’s message from the postgame interview platform at AT&T Center was intended as much for his players as the referees or league officials. Former Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel, whose first playoff series as a coach produced a stunning upset of Karl’s No. 1-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in 1994, understands the importance of a coach showing an underdog team he believes in his players.
“It obviously was not off the cuff because it was so well done,” Issel said. “There had to be some thought and prep that went into it. He knew exactly what he was doing and, obviously, he knew a substantial fine would be coming. He just thought, 'I’ve got to do this to protect my team and to give us any shot of winning this series.’ I think he was showing his team ‘I’m going stick up for you. In my mind, we just got hosed and I’ve got to say something.'
“So, I thought it was terrific; one for the ages. It’s not the last time we’ll see it.”
“I think he did his job,” Karl said. “Take the frustration his team felt and put it on his shoulders. It cost him $30,000, but he did his job. They still have hope they can go home and take care of business on their court.”
Anyone who expects a dramatic reversal of officiating fortunes in Thursday’s Game 3 at FedEx Forum may want to lower expectations.
“It will have zero effect on officiating,” Carlesimo said. “Every crew, even in the first round, will have officials who have worked hundreds of playoff games, and the chance of their being swayed by a coach’s comments or what is written in the press is zero. They are above it. It’s the way it should be. The league has their back, and they could care less what is said.
“For David, this is good from a team standpoint because he stood up for them. But impacting the officials: zero chance."
Issel also believes that elite teams and players usually get the benefit of referee doubt: “Fiz is absolutely right about that.” But he warns the Grizzlies against relying on the referees to call things differently in remaining games of the series.
“If a guy goes to the line 19 times, that’s not the ref’s fault, that’s your fault,” Issel said, known to give a hard foul or two during his 15-year Hall of Fame playing career. “You can’t let a player go to the line 19 times. You either have to quit fouling him or you have to do something that, shall we say, discourages him when he comes in there for the seventh or eighth time.”
It is Leonard’s physicality, in both physique and approach, that makes defending him without fouling so difficult when defenders aren’t allowed to make any sort of contact on the perimeter.
“The game now makes it easier for guys like [Kevin] Durant and Kawhi,” Karl said. “The guys that get a lot of free throws are [James] Harden and LeBron [James] and [Russell] Westbrook and guys who attack from the outside in.
“The ball is attacking the paint from the outside in for Kawhi. You can’t use hands, and contact is more visual and the refs are more confident in what occurs. And Kawhi is big and strong. and he pump-fakes and has a physicality that creates contact. Now, 19 free throws is a lot, and that would be what I would complain about and make it in the context of why doesn’t Conley get more free throws. Of course, the skinnier a guy is, it doesn’t look like they’re being pushed around, simply because they’re skinny.”
On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich side-stepped Fizdale’s comments altogether a few hours before his team departed San Antonio for Memphis. The closest the Spurs coach came to a response was to repeat the admonition he always gives his players before every playoff series.
“I always think it’s smart for players to just play,” Popovich said. “If players get hung up on officiating, I think it hurts their games. We coaches moan and groan at the refs enough. Players don’t need to get involved in that.”
For coaches, however, it's part of the job description, made all the more necessary in the playoffs.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise indicated.