The Memphis Grizzlies lost to the San Antonio Spurs 96-82 on Monday to fall into a 2-0 hole in their first-round series, which understandably puts pressure on them to perform well in Wednesday’s Game 3 at home. A quick look at the Game 2 box score shows one glaring culprit for the loss — a 32-15 free-throw disparity that afforded the Spurs a steady stream of points the Grizzlies simply could not match. San Antonio superstar Kawhi Leonard accounted for 19 of those 32 attempts by himself (and made all of them). By contrast, reserve wing James Ennis III led Memphis with six attempts.
Those numbers were enough to upset first-year Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale, who unloaded on referees in his postgame news conference. Fizdale can expect a fine from the league office before Wednesday, and one look at his comments is enough to know he got his money’s worth:
First, let’s give Fizdale his due. This rant is excellent, especially considering he had just finished only his second playoff game as an NBA head coach. It has everything — a casual reference to his anger early on, several references to players on his team who deserved more freebies, a statement that he’s “not a numbers guy” after listing many stats, a comparison with Mike Conley that implies Kawhi Leonard is an arrogant hothead, and two instant-classic catchphrases. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t see “They’re not gonna rook us” and “Take that for data” on T-shirts later this week.
Many coaches go decades without giving the public a rant of this quality. Let’s hope Fizdale coaches in the playoffs for years, because we need more moments like this one.
With that important aesthetic judgment out of the way, let’s move on to the substance of Fizdale’s statements. On a basic level, he’s right — the Spurs got lots of calls that the Grizzlies didn’t and benefited for it. Yet free-throw totals can’t be explained only by how many shots a team takes in the paint. Referees usually reward teams and players that dictate the physical terms of the game, and Leonard is exactly that kind of player. Only four other Spurs shot free throws, and just fellow star LaMarcus Aldridge (5-of-6 FT) went to the line via more than one whistle. If Fizdale wants his players to get more calls, he has a point. But the Spurs’ total was due to Kawhi, a unique player who often gives defenders little recourse but to make contact.
Of course, assessing Fizdale’s press conference as a logical argument misses the point. A good portion of a head coach’s job is to stand up for his team, and he fulfilled that duty as well as possible. The Grizzlies have lost two games by double digits and need all the help they can get — if his comments push referees to call even just a few more fouls on the Spurs, then his fine was totally worth it. At the same time, he has shown his players that he is willing to take a financial hit for their benefit. All of those positives are much more important than concerns over logic.
Plus, we neutrals just got the first great comedy moment of the 2017 postseason. We might as well band together and start a collection to pay Fizdale’s fine. He has given everyone a great gift.
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