Suns head coach Monty Williams knows the futility of disputing foul calls ex post facto. Having been in National Basketball Association player rosters and coaching ranks for close to three decades, he appreciates the work of referees and understands the difficulties they face in trying to regulate the action. Yet, he also feels there are times when he has to speak up against perceived disparities in the way whistles are blown to the detriment of his teams. He’s working the system, to be sure, compelling reviews and second looks in hopes of setting up a more favorable landscape for the next outing.
Which was why Williams initially proved coy in the aftermath of the Suns’ loss to the Bucks in Game Three of the NBA Finals the other day. He began with a disclaimer. “I’m not going to complain publicly about fouls,” he said. “Not going to do that.” And he was true to his word; he didn’t talk about fouls. Instead, he slyly pointed to the disparity in free throws — thereby making his point all the same. “You can look. We had 16 free throws tonight. One person had 17.”
All things considered, critics wouldn’t be wrong to argue that Williams was being disingenuous. After all, the numbers per se never tell the whole story. As Mark Twain once observed, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And, in the case of the Bucks, they just so happen to have a player whose unique skill sets almost always lead to contact; it’s why that player has normed close to double digits in charity attempts over the last three years. That player is, needless to say, two-time Most Valuable Player awardee Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “one person” Williams alluded to in his measured criticism of the work of the men in gray.
Significantly, Williams made his observation after the Suns’ loss in Game Three. He did not do the same after the Suns’ win in Game Two, when Antetokounmpo shot 18 free throws, four more than his charges all told. At the same time, it would be easy for the Bucks to counter that the Greek Freak’s bruising style of play elicits calls that go both ways, and that a poor percentage from the stripe encourages the competition to deliberately cause whistles.
In any case, Game Four beckons, and it remains to be seen whether Antetokounmpo will get close to his Finals norm of 12 free throws per game. For the Suns, there is one bit of good news; referee Scott Foster will not be around. The latter was part of the crew that worked Game Three, and the setback was Playoff MVP favorite Chris Paul’s 12th straight against the official. Then again, correlation does not imply causation, so the purple and orange would do well to focus instead on correctable realities moving forward. Else, they’ll be felled by demons of their own creation.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.