By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Instantly, it’s become the GIF that keeps on giving.
Clips of Memphis coach David Fizdale’s postgame rant, which ended when he smacked the table, shouted “take that for data,” and stormed off the dais after a Game 2 loss to the Spurs, have gone viral on social media about as fast as Kawhi Leonard gets to the free-throw line.
Both Fizdale and the Grizzlies were bracing for a significant fine from the league on Tuesday for comments that included the first-year coach saying “it was a poorly officiated basketball game,” and using terms “unacceptable” and “unprofessional” to describe the conduct of referees. Dan Crawford, Rodney Mott and Bill Spooner comprised the three-man crew that officiated Game 2, during which Leonard alone outshot the Grizzlies 19-15 from the free-throw line.
The rant heard around the NBA world made Fizdale a sympathetic figure in some circles and a hoops hero in others for defending veterans Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph during a series in which the No. 7-seed Grizzlies have been overmatched by the No. 2-seed Spurs through two games.
But this was hardly a spur-of-the-moment outburst from Fizdale. He’s been privately stewing for nearly a month over some puzzling developments with the officiating in recent matchups between the Grizzlies and Spurs. Counting the regular season, these teams have played five times since March 18.
Memphis and San Antonio split the regular-season series 2-2, but the skepticism that ultimately boiled over on the postgame podium Monday first began to simmer entering a March 23 loss to the Spurs. That’s when the Grizzlies’ staff discovered a CBSSports.com report, citing a social media account that tracks NBA referee statistics, that revealed the Spurs were 20-0 at home over the past 10 seasons with referee Sean Wright as the crew chief.
The officiating crew chief that night for the Grizzlies’ 97-90 loss to the Spurs? Sean Wright. Perhaps it was unfortunate timing, but the coincidence wasn’t lost on the Grizzlies. In that March 23 loss, the Spurs were called for one more foul than the Grizzlies (19-18) but shot eight more free throws.
When the teams met again a week later in San Antonio, frustrations resurfaced when Conley was forced out of the game in the fourth quarter with a cut above his right eye after he bumped heads with Leonard. Conley was called for an offensive foul for the inadvertent clash as he attempted to evade Leonard’s face-guarding defense under the basket. Following the 95-89 overtime loss, Fizdale and Conley furiously questioned how Conley could have been called for the foul in that situation.
So there was already a level of uneasiness entering the playoff series, bad blood was already in the water. Therefore, when Fizdale was presented the statistical disparities late Monday night during what is otherwise considered the “cooling off” period – the 10 minutes immediately after a game and before teams are made available to the media – he built his case.
Because Gregg Popovich was the winning coach in Game 2 and designated to address the media first, Fizdale had a few more minutes to check and recheck the data from the game. Before he emerged from the locker room, Fizdale asked his assistants to check the numbers again to make sure they were accurate. He zeroed in on metrics that showed how many shot attempts both teams had from the paint as compared to how many free-throw attempts resulted from those trips to the lane.
Kawhi shot more free throws than our whole team. Explain it to me. I’m not a numbers guy, but that doesn’t seem to add up.
With each step Fizdale took through the halls of the AT&T Center to get to the postgame press conference room, he cemented his case. Back in the visitors’ locker room, players were essentially advised to save their money and proceed carefully if asked about the officiating.
Leave it to Fizdale, who had all the reasonable information necessary. It was only a matter of which question posed by a reporter was going to offer the coach the runway to articulate his closing argument. Three questions in, the opportunity arrived.
“Overall, 35 times we shot the ball in the paint, we had 15 free throws in the game,” Fizdale said. “They shot 18 times in the paint and had 32 free throws. Kawhi shot more free throws than our whole team. Explain it to me. I’m not a numbers guy, but that doesn’t seem to add up.”
From there, no other questions were necessary. Fizdale had the floor, and he was guiding the discussion where he wanted it to go, where the desperate coach of a desperate team in a 2-0 hole needed it to go. Much like an old Baptist preacher at revival, revving toward his sermon’s climax, Fizdale pointed out how gracious Conley has been throughout a 10-year career that includes being hit with zero techs.
I know Pop has pedigree and I’m a young rookie coach…. But they’re not going to rook us.
“He just cannot seem to get the proper respect from the officials that he deserves,” Fizdale said. “Mike Conley doesn’t go crazy. He has class and just plays the game.”
Fizdale then surmised how Randolph played 36 minutes, got 18 points, got 10 rebounds and got his headband knocked off at least once on a shot. And yet, ZBo didn’t get one free throw.
“The most rugged guy in the game had zero free throws,” Fizdale moaned. “Somehow, Kawhi had 19.”
To some, that’s not analytics. That’s asinine.
And in keeping it all classy but simultaneously callous and calculated, Fizdale dropped in props for Pop while also accepting his own lot as a novice coach in the league.
“I know Pop has pedigree and I’m a young rookie coach,” Fizdale said as he reached the apex. “But they’re not going to rook us.”
Rook us? Seemed to make sense at the time. Simply chalk it up to the South Central coming out of the 42-year-old Fizdale, a proud native of inner-city Los Angeles. Fizdale explained how he tried to make a well-reasoned, data-driven case in sticking up for his team. He didn’t use profanity at the podium. He didn’t disparage the Spurs. He didn’t disrespect the media.
“It wasn’t about emotion,” Fizdale said. “It was about facts.”
Ultimately, this wasn’t about the Spurs. It was about the disparities. The Grizzlies will enter Game 3 on Thursday at FedExForum fueled by the fact they fought back and cut a 26-point deficit to four, with a chance to steal that game in San Antonio. They outscored the Spurs 45-40 in the second half. That’s when each team attempted nine free throws over the final two quarters.
Call it fairly even and the Grizzlies like their chances.
“We needed to see if we could compete with this team on a high level,” Fizdale said of a second half run that started when he inserted Randolph alongside Conley and Gasol to open the third quarter. “It got our confidence back.”
Before the game, Fizdale’s message to his team was that everyone – including the coach – needed to check their egos at the door and do whatever is necessary to help the team win. Fizdale checked his own ego and season-long logic by elevating Randolph back into a starting role in Game 2.
That experiment must continue in Game 3, because prioritizing bench production isn’t working right now for Memphis. Against these Spurs, you have to stay with them from the outset and avoid falling into too large of a hole. It’s tough enough to overcome them when it’s five-on-five, let alone when you’re also battling the notion that the refs aren’t calling it squarely.
Fizdale isn’t too stubborn to see that much. So there’s a risk in carrying complaints too far.
Still, the Grizzlies found something that worked.
It also cost them quite a bit, too.
And it’ll hit Fizdale’s wallet hard. Perhaps the fine can be offset by proceeds from new T-shirts the team is selling with a slogan from Fizdale’s Game 2 outcry.
If it helps get the Grizzlies back into this series, it’s worth the investment.
In Fizdale’s famous final words, as he slapped the table South Central-style as if he just laid the winning domino …
Take that for data.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.