Orlando is hot, and will serve its revenge that way

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Thumbnail image for nelson_game.jpgRevenge is a dish best served in a loud arena in front of 18,000 angry, screaming fans.

At least that’s the plan in Orlando Sunday. The fans there want a piece of the Lakers. The team that beat them in the Finals last June. And the Magic that take the court Sunday with a roster they wish they had last June.

It is a Magic fan’s lament — if we just had Jameer Nelson last year…

Twice during the last regular season, Nelson torched the Lakers and led the Magic to win. He was the best player on the floor both games. But in the Finals, Nelson was rushed back off an injury and was a mere shadow of himself. And the Lakers rolled the Magic in five.

This time Orlando has a healthy Nelson — one that in the last 10 games has averaged 16 points and 7 assists per game. He is slashing and getting into the paint, something the Lakers have struggled to stop this season. He is both finishing at the rim and stepping out and hitting threes — 37% in his last 10 games. He is playing like an All-Star again.

This time the Lakers get the full force of Orlando — one that has an improved Dwight Howard, Vince Carter finally fitting in and letting the game come to him, and energy out of Matt Barnes.

These are not the Magic the Lakers beat last year.

These are not the Lakers that beat the Magic last year, either. And we’re not just talking about Ron Artest’s hair

And they are not playing well. (Well for them, they are 6-4 in their last 10, which the Nets would even consider staying at the IZOD Center for.) They have lost two in a row, and their last three on the road.

Lakers fans have largely thrown the blame at Pau Gasol. We as a species like simple answers, but we live in a world of complex problems. So it is with the Lakers offensive slump. And that offense being out of balance has hurt their defense (turnovers and slow rotations because guys don’t get back in good position.).

It starts because the Laker guards are doing a poor job of getting the ball into the post to start the triangle offense. Fisher is decent but has lost a step, Jordan Farmar overdribbles then tries to force the pass in, Shannon Brown barely even runs the offense. When the ball does go in to Gasol or Bynum, teams are throwing delayed double teams at them and those two — both good passers — have been slow to recognize the double and bad at making the pass out to their release point cleanly. Then, even if all that happens, the Lakers outside shooting is off. Teams can sag off the Lakers, crowd the bigs in the paint and block Kobe Bryant’s penetration, because they don’t pay a consistent price from the outside jumper.

The Lakers players on Saturday met but didn’t talk about that. They talked about how to better defend the pick-and-roll — which they should see a lot of Sunday. Kobe talked about the need for determination.

The Lakers have shown flashes of that determination, of the good offense and a very good defense this season. They did it for about 18 minutes last Sunday and that was good enough to beat Denver.

But 18 minutes will not cut it against the Magic. Orlando is playing better, has a weapon with Nelson that attacks right at a Laker weakness (defending point guards) and has the defense to shut down the Lakers offense.

The Magic are good enough to get their fans the revenge they want. But until they beat the Lakers in a convincing fashion, it’s hard to bet against the Lakers and Kobe when they are challenged.

And that dish of revenge might not taste as good as everyone thought.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).

Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns questionable vs. Knicks after car accident

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was questionable for Friday night’s game in New York against the Knicks after a car accident in the Minneapolis area.

The Star Tribune reports Towns was headed to the airport Thursday when he was involved in the accident. Coach Ryan Saunders told the newspaper Towns caught a commercial flight after the accident and missed a team shootaround.

Saunders said he had no information on specific injuries for Towns. Guard Tyus Jones told the Star Tribune he saw Towns before the shootaround and Towns was doing “all right.”

“Rest” was listed as the reason for him being questionable on the official injury report

It wasn’t immediately clear where the accident occurred. Minneapolis police said they didn’t handle any incident involving Towns. A Timberwolves spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a phone message from The Associated Press.

 

Kings’ Dave Joerger and Buddy Hield apparently argued after Hield’s late 3-pointer (video)

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Important caveats: I don’t know what Kings coach Dave Joerger and Sacramento guard Buddy Hield said to each other late in their loss to the Warriors last night. It looks like they were arguing, but body language can easily be misread. And even if they were arguing, I don’t know about what.

Let’s read into the situation, anyway.

With the Kings down six and 20 seconds left, Hield pulled up for a deep 3-pointer and made it. Afterward, Joerger and Hield had an exchange:

Could Joerger have been upset about the shot? Sacramento was down six with 20 seconds left. There wasn’t time to work for a better look. The Kings needed points, ideally three, quickly. As soon as Hield felt he confident, he should have shot, as he did.

That set up Sacramento’s final possession, down two with 6.5 seconds left. Hield squared up for another deep 3-pointer, hesitated then worked inside for an off-balance miss:

Hield said he should have let it fly. Did Joerger get in his head?

That’s what Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said happened:

That’s the easy narrative.

Is that the accurate narrative? I don’t know.

But it’s definitely the easy one.

NBA emphasizes its investigation never concluded Tim Donaghy didn’t fix games

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Did Tim Donaghy fix games while working as NBA referee?

That question still draws interest, even many years after he admitted to supplying gamblers with inside information in exchange for money. Donaghy has denied fixing games.

A new investigation into Donaghy was published by ESPN earlier this week. I recommend reading Scott Eden’s piece in full.

Then, it’s worth reading the NBA’s response.

NBA:

The Tim Donaghy matter concluded over a decade ago with a full investigation by the federal government, Donaghy’s termination from the NBA, and his conviction for criminal acts.  At the same time, at the request of the NBA, former prosecutor Larry Pedowitz conducted an independent investigation of Donaghy’s misconduct and issued publicly a 133-page report.  This report was based on an extensive review of game data and video as well as approximately 200 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, and consultation with various gambling and data experts.

The ESPN Article attempts to revive this old story.  Unfortunately, it is replete with errors, beginning with its statement that the Pedowitz Report “concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games.”  The Pedowitz Report made no such conclusion.  Rather, the investigation found no basis to disagree with the finding of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.”  ESPN ignores this important distinction.

The new material that ESPN has assembled to support its own conclusion that Donaghy manipulated games is not strong and adds little to the existing record.

Quoted Individuals

The ESPN Article includes several quotes from named and unnamed individuals.  But these statements conflict with other evidence in the record and in many cases are based on speculation.  For example:

• ESPN quotes Phil Scala, a retired FBI agent who was part of the government’s investigation, as saying Donaghy’s claim that he did not manipulate games “never really flew with us.” But in 2009, Scala wrote a foreword to a book authored by Donaghy in which Scala characterized Donaghy’s cooperation as “unconditionally truthful” and stated that Donaghy “confess[ed] his sins, [took] full responsibility for his actions, pa[id] his debt to society, and [found] the humility to completely display his past vices.”

• ESPN quotes an anonymous “professional gambler” as claiming Donaghy told him “he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute.” But this claim is not accurate.  In the 274 regular season and playoff games that Donaghy officiated during the 2003-04 to 2006-07 seasons, he called illegal defense three times during the first minute of a game.

• ESPN asserts that Donaghy had “come clean” to Tommy Martino. But the actual quotes attributed to Martino do not appear to support that conclusion – they only suggest that Donaghy told Martino he could influence games, not that he had in fact done so.

Statistical Analysis

The ESPN Article relies on a statistical analysis of Donaghy’s officiating and betting line movements.  We asked ESPN to provide us with the data and assumptions underlying this analysis, but they refused.  Based on the limited information contained in the Article, we attempted to replicate ESPN’s findings – but were unable to do so.  Indeed, our analysis found no meaningful pattern of Donaghy making more calls in favor of the team that had the “heavier betting.”

Further, the original analyses conducted by the Pedowitz team were significantly more comprehensive than what ESPN appears to have done.  For example, ESPN’s work appears to include only foul calls, and not significant non-calls or violations.  It further treats all calls the same, without considering the nature or circumstances of the call – such as “take fouls” or high-impact shooting fouls.  And ESPN questionably excludes from its analysis 10 games that it deemed to be “blowouts” and roughly 50 calls that it could not attribute to a particular referee – omissions that could meaningfully alter its conclusions.

Finally, it is important to remember that a statistical analysis can only suggest a probability of an event’s occurrence – it does not itself constitute direct evidence that an event occurred.  By contrast, the Pedowitz team and the NBA supplemented statistical analysis with an assessment of the accuracy of each of Donaghy’s actual calls and non-calls in relevant games.  These analyses also did not support ESPN’s conclusions.

Anecdotal Evidence from Games

The ESPN Article cites several games officiated by Donaghy that included calls or call patterns that ESPN deemed suspicious.  However, these examples have limited value separate from a more careful video analysis, and they frequently omit material information.  For example:

• Dallas @ Seattle, 12/20/2006: ESPN cites a foul called by Donaghy against Seattle with 23 seconds remaining in the game that purportedly gave Dallas an opportunity to cover an 8-point spread.  But it omits that this was an intentional “take foul” by Seattle.  The Article also cites a streak of fouls called by Donaghy against Seattle in the same game, purportedly to favor Dallas.  But it omits that after this streak, and during the last four minutes of the game, Donaghy called two fouls against Dallas.

• Boston @ Philadelphia, 12/13/2006: ESPN cites two consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Sixers’ Andre Iguodala in the third quarter when the game’s score margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that between those fouls, Donaghy called a foul against the Celtics’ Paul Pierce.

• Washington @ Indiana, 3/14/2007: ESPN cites four consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Pacers in the fourth quarter when the game’s margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that immediately prior to this streak, Donaghy called four consecutive fouls against the Wizards.

* * *

We recognize there is strong interest in the subject of expanded sports betting and the measures sports organizations should undertake to protect integrity.  However, the ESPN Article does not add anything material to the record of what happened over a decade ago.  There is no dispute that Tim Donaghy engaged in criminal conduct as an NBA referee, costing him his job, his reputation, and for a time, his freedom.  The Pedowitz investigation focused on understanding what Donaghy did and how he did it so we would be best equipped to protect the integrity of our games going forward.

In that regard, the Pedowitz Report prompted changes to the NBA’s officiating and integrity programs.  A summary of the initiatives the NBA has adopted since 2008 is available here.  This summary provides added context that describes the NBA’s response to the Donaghy situation and our continued efforts to ensure that the NBA’s integrity programs meet the highest standards.

The Donaghy matter also underscores the need for sports leagues to have greater access to betting data from sports books to monitor gambling on their games.  We will continue our ongoing efforts to obtain this information to further expand our integrity efforts and best protect our sport in an age of legalized sports gambling.

The NBA is right: the Pedowitz Report did not conclude that Donaghy didn’t fix games. The report merely found insufficient evidence to disagree with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which found no evidence Donaghy fixed games. A lack of evidence to contradict a lack of evidence is not nearly as conclusive as “Donaghy didn’t fix games.”

But is the NBA really now casting doubt on the notion Donaghy didn’t fix games?

That seems backward. The league should seemingly want to protect its integrity, not call attention to lack of clarity around what Donaghy did and didn’t do.

Maybe the NBA is just trying to cast general doubt onto Eden’s reporting. Some of the above distinctions seem like nitpicking, at least without more context. For example, how many illegal defenses did Donaghy call in the first five minutes of games? The gambler might have been embellishing by saying “first minute.”

Still, the league raises one question that seems particularly relevant: Why did former FBI agent Phil Scala vouch for Donaghy’s honesty then express doubt over Donaghy’s claim he didn’t fix games?

Ultimately, I wish we had better data. Pedowitz reviewed only 17 games, but examined all calls. ESPN reviewed 40 games, but apparently examined only fouls.

However, statistical analysis can’t prove Donaghy’s motives. It can only indicate trends. So, even better data won’t prove whether or not Donaghy fixed games.

But here’s what I can’t get over, no matter how ESPN or the NBA frames these details: Donaghy broke the law to sell gamblers information while working as a referee. Will anyone ever believe he drew the line before fixing games?