No matter how the Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals turn out, the forensic investigation by NBA observers will undoubtedly focus on officiating. Granted, it makes zero sense that anyone in a striped shirt would do anything but call an absolutely honest game at this point. But the public is still going to wonder and question.
And it doesn't matter that disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy has all the credibility of an oil company executive explaining how much his corporation is trying to hold down gasoline prices. Ever since Wilt Chamberlain dipper-dunked his way through an NBA career without ever fouling out of a game, the NBA has been under fan suspicion for protecting its star players to protect the gate. More recently, those suspicions have spread to the league favoring more popular teams and extending playoff series to boost TV ratings.
As a result, Donaghy's contentions in court papers this week that a 2002 playoff game (presumed to be between the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers) was tanked by the refs at the behest of the NBA to help Los Angeles advance resonates with the public.
Making things even juicier - especially if one subscribes to conspiracy theories - was the script for Tuesday night's Game 3.
The Lakers were down two games to none in the most attractive NBA Finals since league fashion was tight silks. And the officiating crew included two of the three refs - Joey Crawford and Mark Wunderlich - who were part of the crew in this year's Spurs-Lakers game in the Western Conference finals in which there was a critical noncall on L.A.'s Derek Fisher against San Antonio's Brent Barry.
With the Lakers needing a victory Tuesday to have the series stay a series - and extend the TV exposure of this very important opportunity for the league - L.A. got 34 chances at the foul line to Boston's 22. The net difference on the scoreboard was six points. The Lakers won, 87-81.
Am I suggesting there was anything amiss about the officiating in Tuesday's game? Not at all.
What I am saying is that kind of statistic is the type of thing that gets the attention of a skeptical public that doesn't have to be convinced that Donaghy is Honest Abe to be credible.
And NBA commissioner David Stern's smiling and brushing aside the Donaghy allegations - referencing Donaghy's messy reputation and reminding everyone that the guy is an admitted felon - doesn't get it done in the court of public opinion.
There is a belief among many that the NBA finagles games to help its general economic health. True or not - and it doesn't matter how much the league opens itself to investigation - too many fans see it that way.
Stern has to realize that his league's perception problem is grave and getting worse regardless of what he contends is the reality. And there is something he can do about it - put a firewall between the league and its officials. It's a suggestion being advanced by none other than Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Here's what Jackson said Tuesday night: "You know, a lot of things have happened in the course of the Tim Donaghy disposition. I think we have to weigh it as it comes out, and we all think that probably referees should be under a separate entity than the NBA entirely. I mean, that's what we'd like to see probably in the NBA. It would just be separate and apart from it. But I don't think that's going to happen."