There are just over 30 seconds left in the game and the Los Angeles Lakers are up one point over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Lonzo Ball, who is flirting with a triple-double, surveys the floor from halfcourt. For a team that has dealt with a historically difficult December, the Lakers desperately are in need of a win to keep morale high. For a pre-Christmas game in December, tension runs high.
Rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma darts towards Ball, and his defender, Blazers rookie Zach Collins, drops into the paint to cover the inevitable Ball drive after Kuzma sets the screen.
The only problem is, it’s a fake, and Collins has been duped. Instead of setting the screen, Kuzma slides to the right of Ball and steps behind the three-point line where he catches the pass and prepares to fire a dagger.
Collins, realizing he’s been had, sprints towards Kuzma, hoping to alter the shot. The seven-footer lunges at Kuzma, slapping his shooting arm and causing his shot to fall a full 12 feet short of the rim.
The referees, whose job it is to award Kuzma three free throws, remain silent. No call.
The Blazers, energized by the transition opportunity, bolt down the floor and ultimately get a three-point play of their own when Maurice Harkless gets an offensive rebound, scores, and is fouled.
Ball game. Another Lakers loss.
Afterwards, head coach Luke Walton, who typically refrains from criticizing officials, said, “It’s frustrating. We’re trying to teach this young team how to play and what to do, and do it properly. And it just feels like every night it’s a different excuse on why we’re not getting calls, what the definition of verticality is.”
The loss to Portland, and the lack of calls for the Lakers, isn’t an isolated incident. All season, the young Lakers have struggled to get the respect of the officials.
Let’s make no mistake, this Lakers team isn’t expected to be a juggernaut. Poor officiating isn’t preventing them from winning a title, or even contending for a playoff spot. They are losing on their own, but the officiating certainly isn’t helping.
This is a young team full of players who need to find their footing in the NBA. Exactly the kind of players who typically don’t get the benefit of the doubt from the refs. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it’s a well-known fact that some players are just officiated differently (watch James Harden for five minutes and you will see what I mean).
Still, the lack of fouls awarded robs the team of opportunities for positive reinforcement. Winning feels good and serves as encouragement for a young group to play the right way. Losses can do the opposite, especially as we hit the dog days of the season.
They can lead to a downward spiral or doubt and finger-pointing, which is far from the ideal environment for Ball, Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and the rest to develop in.
The problems that the Lakers have been having with officiating isn’t just anecdotal, either, nor are they the only team with concerns.
NBA referees are hoping to work with the Player’s Association to calm tensions between the two sides after a number of incidents have plagued the league this season. While the Lakers haven’t had run-ins with the officials over ejections like some high-profile stars, they have been frustrated with how inconsistent and one-sided games have been called this season.
To date, the Lakers play at the fastest pace in the league and take more shots than any other team, which creates more opportunities for opponents to foul them.
That alone doesn’t necessarily produce more fouls, but the Lakers also score more points in the paint than any other team in the league by a large margin. They persistently attack the basket, hurling themselves into defenders and creating contact at the rim.
Given how many opportunities they create and the style that they play, one would expect the Lakers to be among the league leaders in fouls drawn (even if they can’t hit their free throws).
Guess where they actually rank? 13th. Roughly middle of the pack.
Twelve teams in the NBA get more fouls called than the Lakers do, and the frustration is starting to boil over.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, Jordan Clarkson picked up a technical foul after barking at a referee after he got slapped on the arm while shooting with no call.
The usually soft-spoken Brandon Ingram picked up a technical of his own after the game was decided. The frustration the team is feeling is as obvious as it is understandable.
Again, this iteration of the Lakers isn’t a few calls away from being a title contender, and they have plenty to focus on besides worrying about whistles. They should have put away the Blazers earlier in the game, and the Grizzlies loss was possibly the poorest showing of the season on both ends of the floor.
That’s on them, not the referees.
That said, the problem is real, and it’s going to be one more thing that the young Lakers will have to find a way to overcome if they are going to turn their season around.
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