Alexander: Foul, or no foul? Lakers and Warriors continue the debate

SAN FRANCISCO — It has been an entertaining Western Conference semifinal series between the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors, if not always taut and tense. But it took a while for a real, honest-to-goodness playoff series to break out.

You know the type: One where the opposing coaches use the media to send messages to the next game’s officiating crew. It’s the game within the game, and it was reasonable to wonder Wednesday night if the messages had had their desired effect in the 121-106 Game 5 victory that kept Golden State alive in this series.

Up until then, the narrative had been about fouls and free throws, and specifically the number that the Lakers had been drawing. And after Warriors players and coaches (and, yes, fans) complained at length about free throws the first three games of the series, Golden State coach Steve Kerr came right out after Game 4 and asserted the Lakers were flopping to draw fouls, after a series of illegal screens were called on the Warriors.

“The Lakers are a team that plays with a lot of gamesmanship,” he said. “They understand how to generate some calls. I thought they took some flops and were rewarded. But I’ll have to see the replays. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those were all illegal screens, but it didn’t feel like it watching the game.”

Then, in the off day between games, Kerr upped the ante and suggested the NBA adopt FIBA’s anti-flopping rules, adding: “In the meantime, I give the Lakers credit for the plays that they’ve been able to sell.”

Steve Kerr would like to see the NBA address its flopping issue and suggests implementing rules similar to FIBA

— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) May 10, 2023

So, to recap, the Lakers shot 29, 37 and 37 free throws in their three victories, the Warriors 6, 17 and 17. In Game 2 the foul shots were nearly equal.

Wednesday night? The Lakers were 12 for 15 from the line, and the Warriors were 14 for 15. Were officials Zach Zarba, James Williams and Gediminas Petralitis influenced by the rhetoric? We’ll never know for sure, but feel free to take your best guess.

Free throws did not determine Wednesday’s game. The Warriors won despite an off night from Klay Thompson (11 points, 1 for 6 from 3-point range) and because Andrew Wiggins (25 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Draymond Green (20 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals) stepped up. The Lakers got production from their stars (25 points and nine rebounds from LeBron James, 23 points and nine rebounds but no blocks from Anthony Davis before he left the game after a blow to the head in the fourth quarter), but little contribution from their bench bedsides Dennis Schröder (14 points).

But the back-and-forth between the coaches? It’s on.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham brushed off a question about Kerr’s comments before the game, saying he wouldn’t “go down that rabbit hole, pointing fingers, blaming officials. I never did, not as a player and not as an assistant coach, and I won’t start now.”

Afterward, he was more perturbed, when asked if Kerr’s comments impacted the way the game had been officiated.

“We play a physical brand of basketball,” he said. “We don’t teach flopping, we don’t teach head snaps.

“You see Bron, he’s got a thousand scratches on his arms. Same with A.D., same with Austin Reaves, same with Lonnie Walker. It’s unfortunate that it comes to that, but we hadn’t done it all year, and we’re damn sure not going to start now, looking for a third party to dive in and help us.

“We’re just going to coach our team, just going to play the way we play, a physical, forceful brand of basketball and just let the chips fall where they may.”

Those comments – and the annoyed tone in which they were delivered – were identical to Ham’s remarks in his in-game interview with TNT’s Chris Haynes at the end of the first quarter on Wednesday night.

Whoever the officials are for Friday night’s Game 6 in downtown L.A., I’m sure they’ll be made aware of the chirping if they aren’t already.

And consider that Kerr played for Phil Jackson, who was legendary for transmitting such subliminal messages through the media. We still remember the 2004 Lakers-Houston series when then-Rockets coach (and now ESPN analyst) Jeff Van Gundy reacted to Phil’s snark (and, presumably, our willingness to publish it) thusly:

“I only have to look at the calendar to know it’s spring coming on summer and Phil is complaining about the officiating … If Phil was a fisherman, he’d have you mounted on a wall.”

What can we say? The storylines are just too juicy.

But even without the back-and-forth, this series has become potentially precarious for the Lakers. The veterans on this Golden State club have come back from a 3-1 series deficit before, they’ve had it done to them, and they understand the process.

If Davis is unavailable, the Lakers’ task becomes exponentially harder. Ham said immediately after the game that he “seems to be doing really good already,” but there will likely be a lot of furrowed brows before the active roster is turned in prior to Friday’s game.

The trick, according to D’Angelo Russell? “Try to lose yourself in the focus, try not to get caught up in all the other stuff going into it,” he said.

In other words, let the officials deal with the back-and-forth.

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