How Flopping Swung the NBA's Game of the Year, and Why the NBA Should Hate That

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, right, talks to a referee about a foul call during the first half of an NBA basketball Western Conference Play-In game against the Golden State Warriors Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The NBA had what may have been its game of the year Wednesday when the Los Angeles Lakers rode a desperation heave from LeBron James to beat the Golden State Warriors 103-100 in the 7-8 play-in.

"After Draymond [Green]'s finger to the eye, I was literally seeing three rims out there," LeBron said of his game-winner. "I just shot for the middle one."

That bucket and the overall drama of the play-in tournament's first full-blown barn-burner should be the lasting impression of the game. For plenty, especially Lakers fans, it likely is.

But three crucial foul calls on Green in the fourth quarter are sure to stick with plenty of viewers.

First, with just under five minutes left, the Warriors were riding a little momentum after Curry tied the game and got to 33 points with a reverse layup. In the middle of a typical tic-tac-toe-style passing sequence from Golden State, Davis hit the deck like he'd taken a shot from one of the pugil sticks in American Gladiators.

To be sure, Green was moving into AD's path as he went to contest Jordan Poole's shot (and Poole missed the would-be attempt). Officials may well have called the offensive foul either way, but the accentuation didn't hurt Davis' case. And few things stymie momentum quite like a turnover.

But that wasn't the end of Green's involvement with controversy.

Just over two minutes later, he contested a LeBron layup attempt in transition, smacked him in the face and sent the officials to review the action for a possible flagrant. It was deemed a common foul, but not before LeBron's reaction to the contact started popping up in memes all over the internet.

Bleacher Report

At least one fellow NBA player couldn't help but comment on what he felt may have been a bit of "milking it."

CJ McCollum @CJMcCollum

Actor of the year 🤣

That, of course, was an obvious foul, though. Whether he was selling or not, the outcome was always going to be free throws for LeBron. And forcing a review probably didn't move the needle much one way or the other.

The real killer came a few seconds later after James missed the second free throw and the Warriors headed down the floor for a chance to break another tie. With under two minutes to go, and the game knotted at 98, Wesley Matthews dropped face-first like Ric Flair after a knife-edge chop when Green set a screen on him.

Bleacher Report

Whether any of the above actually changed the outcome of the game is impossible to know. It'd be, at best, speculation, especially since the Warriors had a few possessions between the last flop (and we'll just go ahead and definitively classify the last one as a flop) and the final buzzer.

But basketball is often as much about feel, momentum and other intangibles as it is about defined offensive philosophies and carefully engineered possessions. And it would be hard to argue that three fouls like the ones called on Draymond in the clutch (defined by the league as the last five minutes of a game within five points) didn't affect the feel and momentum of that game.

Ultimately, though, the league may only care if a direct link from these calls to a negative impact on viewership can be shown.

For economic reasons, L.A. securing its playoff spot is probably ideal. And again, even if you put Davis or Matthews on a witness stand, you probably can't prove that either intentionally flopped, or that the alleged flops undeniably swung the game.

But video evidence from this game and plenty of others over the last few years could make for a compelling case that flopping has simply become part of the game. Nine years after the league instituted fines for flopping, the practice seems as vibrant as ever.

After a couple of seconds of searching on YouTube, an eight-minute reel of the league's "best flops" from 2019-20 pops up. This season, SportsCenter produced a segment entitled Phantom of the Flopera, highlighting the "top flops of the first half" of the season.

Meanwhile, there was just one flopping fine handed out in 2020-21. The rules on the books aren't even being enforced.

"I think it's been getting worse for a while now because there is no punishment for it," a former NBA player told Bleacher Report. "Really, there is only upside for trying it. I know a few seasons ago, they attempted to crack down on it, but after the league felt they achieved their goal, they let up and things slid back to problematic. I mean, honestly, can't blame the guys for doing it. It's efficient as hell."

Fans seem to be picking up on the trend too. In a far-from-scientific poll, nearly 90 percent of respondents voted that the league had a problem with flopping.

For purists, or even the casual fans who may have tuned in for the first time this season Wednesday, seeing games or portions of games reduced to acting showcases can be a turnoff.

The league generated an unprecedented level of engagement online this season, but there's been a general decline in TV ratings over the years. And according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, revenues are plummeting due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related restrictions.

Of course, some relief is on the way as fans start to return to arenas, but the NBA would be wise to keep an eye on a problem it deemed serious enough to institute fines over in 2012. It hasn't gotten better since then, and having it front and center during the play-in tournament will leave the wrong impression on some.

The solution might be as simple as bringing back the fines, but even that might not be felt for a while. If you watch about any NBA game in 2021, you're likely to see, at the very least, the accentuation of contact on dozens of plays.

For many players, including some All-Stars, flopping is entrenched.