After putting away the Nuggets, the LA Lakers will play the Miami Heat. Denver made an improbable run to get as far as they did, returning from seemingly insurmountable odds, down 3-1 against the Clippers in the semis. One area where Denver felt they didn’t get much help was with officiating.
Due to some Lakers-suggested adjustments mid-series, the refs changed the way they approached the game. Let’s look at what happened when the Lakers complained to the NBA about the number of fouls called and how the Nuggets reacted.
The foul calls in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals
After dropping the first two games of the series, the Nuggets clawed back into contention with a Game Three victory, 114-106, according to ESPN. This came after a particularly devastating Game Two effort where the Lakers won thanks to Davis’s three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Lakers were whistled for 26 fouls to the Nuggets 21. That’s not an incredibly large disparity — it certainly favored Denver, but not excessively so. Consider that the Lakers shot 22 free throws to the Nuggets 29. It didn’t help the Lakers cause that they shot 63% from the charity stripe while Denver managed 79%.
The Lakers weren’t happy with this result, obviously, and let the league know their displeasure. The LA Times reported the Lakers notified the league that they felt LeBron James wasn’t getting to the foul line enough.
How referees responded in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals
The Nuggets attempted to gain some semblance of momentum after LA blanked them in the first two games. Game Four was critical, details ESPN. They’d be unsuccessful, however, as the Lakers pulled ahead for a 3-1 series lead, winning 114-108.
The Lakers’ pleas to the league for help were heard, apparently. They were called for 25 fouls to the Nuggets 28. They also went to the foul line considerably more, shooting 35 free throws to Denver’s 23. Both teams shot well once they got there: the Lakers shot 80% while the Nuggets shot 87%.
So many things happen during a basketball game that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the result on one single factor. But it’s hardly coincidental that the Lakers made exactly eight more free throws than the Nuggets (28-20). That’s the exact margin of victory they won by. After the game, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone was less than pleased with the officiating.
Mike Malone’s comments after Game 4
According to CBS Sports, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel said following Game Three that he’d have to go through the “proper channels” with the league to complain about the lack of foul calls going the Lakers way. Not to be outdone, Malone offered a rebuke following the Laker win:
“I’m going to have to go through the proper channels like they did to get some more free throws.”
Malone quickly added that fouls weren’t what decided the game, and that would be accurate: too many things happen on the floor for free throws to be the lone deciding factor. Still, Malone’s words show that the referees’ response to Vogel’s prodding stung.
The NBA is a star’s league, and whispers of preferential treatment for stars like James and Davis have been prevalent for years. This will certainly only add fuel to that fire as the Lakers march on to attempt to win another title and the Nuggets prepare for 2021.