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Fair or foul? Gamesmanship in NBA Finals centers on favorable treatment from refs

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MILWAUKEE — Channeling his inner Muhammad Ali, Giannis Antetokounmpo pointed to foul-induced scratches on his face, “making my pretty face ugly” as evidence his numerous trips to the free-throw line in Game 3 of the NBA Finals were well-earned.

It drew the mild observation from Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams, who noted Antetokounmpo took more free throws than the entire Suns team — harkening back to a more blatant form of gamesmanship in the NBA.

Williams is a straight shooter and hasn’t been slick through the media. The audio clips the NBA releases show Williams’ approach with his players, where he doesn’t give off much in the way of airs and graces. But consider this: Williams played for Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, among others. Riley was a master at tweaking the league and officials in the midst of playoff series, and Van Gundy wasn’t too far behind.

Williams’ original quote centered on Deandre Ayton’s foul trouble in Game 3, not necessarily anything intentional, but he admitted he was “stating the facts.”

“I don't know if I can do it. It's just not my personality,” Williams said. “The one thing that Pop taught me was to be myself. I do think it's finite in its ability to change anything.

“But I do get your point. I've seen coaches implement that. I just know I'm not that good at it.”

Rivers will often campaign for any advantage he can find, and there doesn’t appear to be anything nefarious or untoward about speaking one’s mind.

Riley often complained about Michael Jordan getting favorable treatment from the officials, affecting how Riley’s bumping-and-bruising Knicks could play him. Phil Jackson whined for years on end about the Detroit Pistons’ physical treatment of Jordan, and often claimed they were in illegal defense looks.

Chuck Daly would opine about the Lakers' and Celtics' tactics, along with tongue-in-cheek assessments on Jordan.

Clearly, there’s a theme and it’s a part of the fabric of the NBA playoffs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo takes a free throw during the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 17 free-throw attempts in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, leading to a mild observation from Suns coach Monty Williams. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Sometimes it lightened their pocketbook, other times it placed a white-hot spotlight on how the following games were to be called, and even played.

There’s no scientific evidence on whether it works but the coaches wouldn’t do it so often if they didn’t feel like it could affect the game in the margins in some way.

“I mean, it's like the age-old ritual of the playoffs,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I guess historically or experience-wise, I don't know that it has any impact and probably could argue I've seen it go both ways. Some organizations, some players, some teams actually feel like they're penalized for doing it.”

The NBA will always be sensitive about criticism to its officials. Instant replay and increased technology have made everyone an expert on what is or isn’t a foul, who initiates contact and who absorbs it and, of course, the other age-old theory: who the league wants to win which game to extend or finish a series.

It adds to the drama of a championship series, a juicy subplot for even the casual fans to latch onto. The Bucks are down 2-1, but seem to have picked up traction upon returning home. Usually in Game 4s, the best team identifies itself and the series begins to take its final form — regardless of the result.

For Antetokounmpo, the man who doesn’t do much in social media and says he doesn’t pay attention to the postgame news conferences, he shook his head before the question about the whistles was done.

“I don't follow that. But I think I take a pretty good beating down there. I have a scratch right here and scratch right here. So they're making my pretty face ugly,” he said, laughing.

Budenholzer, although he tries to say very little and show even less by way of facial expressions, went to that well following Game 1 — he the graduate of the Popovich school. The free-throw attempts increased from 16 to 26 in each of the past two games.

“I’m not sure it ever works, but everyone tries it. It’s hard to measure,” said former Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy in a text to Yahoo Sports. “If Phoenix gets more free throws in Game 4 or Giannis fewer, is it because Monty pointed out inequities or because Phoenix attacked more or did a better job keeping Giannis out of the paint?”

Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, as Van Gundy was alluding to. Antetokounmpo got more aggressive following Game 1, and the Bucks seem far more comfortable entering Game 4 than they did to start the series.

And with Antetokounmpo’s size, agility and strength, sometimes the only way to stop him is to foul him, especially considering the Suns don’t have multiple bigs to burn up fouls on him.

“We're going to keep trying to build a wall,” Suns guard Chris Paul said. “He's coming full speed every play, like a running back coming downhill. Coach has a saying, we just say we try to get in his way.”

Running backs take plenty of contact, and in the NBA, contact equals a foul. The Suns are more of a jump-shooting team, compared to Antetokounmpo hunting contact at his best and most aggressive.

The Suns are 28th in free-throw makes and 29th in attempts, but shot better than 83% as a team. It’s a difference in styles and depending on the crew of referees, the borderline contact leaves so much to interpretation.

“At the end of the day, I actually think the referees just call the game,” Budenholzer said. “They call the game and coaches go and talk about the game, and we'll do the same thing after tomorrow night's game.

“We have the best referees in the league, and we're always still frustrated with them. They're still the best in the world. It seems like it's always the same, and I don't think it has any impact on the game.”

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