The Zen Master was also the master of zebra manipulation.
Phil Jackson publicly griped about NBA officiating for decades, once saying, “This was Munich in ‘72 revisited,” and alleging that the Pat Riley-coached Knicks were playing “football, not basketball.”
Asked in 2009 if he was trying to plant seeds in officials’ minds, Jackson replied, “I’m a gardener, constantly.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests it worked, that officials tilted in his team’s direction the next game.
That brings us to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who said Celtics star Isaiah Thomas is “impossible to guard” when officials ignore his penchant for palming the basketball. Most observers, it seemed, responded with a face palm.
“Does Fred Hoiberg think this is the YMCA playoffs?” ESPN’s Michael Wilbon tweeted. “So Isaiah Thomas palmed the ball? Seriously?”
Said Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take” morning show: “Here’s my problem with it: You said nothing about it when you won Game 1 and Game 2. Now you’re losing and here you come chirping about what’s unfair.”
The Tribune spoke Monday with ESPN analysts and former NBA players Tim Legler and Antonio Davis about the issue.
Does Thomas get away with palming (aka carrying, aka discontinuing his dribble)?
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“No question,” Legler said. “He’s probably the best at it and takes the most advantage of it. And it does contribute to why teams have such a difficult time containing him. ... But it’s widespread around the NBA. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I see it called over the course of a season.”
Davis: “Everybody does it. I do understand it makes him very tough to guard, but it also made Allen Iverson tough to guard. It makes Jimmy Butler tough to guard. It’s just a part of the game today. I understand the frustration of seeing it on film and having nobody call it, but the question is: What are you doing to combat it?”
OK, so what’s the alternative?
Were Davis coaching the Bulls, he said he would ask himself: “What can I do to make sure he can’t get a full head of steam at our bigs or slice through everybody and lay the ball up?”
Davis said the Bulls need to throw different looks at Thomas and try to find one that works.
“As soon as he comes off the pick-and-roll, trap him. Let’s see if he gives the ball up,” Davis said. “You have enough bigs on your bench that if they get some fouls, that’s OK. Bring a wing off to attack him and force him to pass to someone to shoot a deep 3. You can live with 30 to 35 percent 3-point shooting rather than Isaiah getting to the gut of your defense and maybe getting an and-one.”
Any chance Hoiberg’s griping will work in Game 5?
Davis: “Even if it’s called once or twice, it’s worth it.”
Legler: “If the chances have increased, it’s infinitesimal. And it certainly won’t be called when it matters.”
The bottom line?
Legler said Thomas, James Harden and Stephen Curry all get away with palming. Harden also sometimes clutches onto a defender who plays “over” a screen, flails his arms and draws a 3-point shooting foul.
“I don’t blame players,” Legler said. “They will adapt to what makes them more effective.”
In this case Legler said he strongly doubts Hoiberg’s gripe will be effective with officials because 1) the circumstances surrounding Thomas and the loss of his sister and 2) the public is viewing an otherwise “valid point” as sour grapes because it came after two home losses.
Davis thinks if Hoiberg had a beef, he should have complained forcefully — after Game 1.
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“You’re going to get fined either way,” he said. “Get your money’s worth.”