The Minnesota Timberwolves have been playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. Winners of four straight, they entered Phoenix on Wednesday night with a chance to jump the Warriors for the No. 6 seed.
They looked great early and hung tough in Kevin Durant's return, but the Suns ultimately prevailed, 107-100, to keep Minnesota down in the play-in at No. 7. And Minnesota big man Rudy Gobert did not like the way it went down.
In the latest edition of a losing player or coach ripping the officials, Gobert basically said that the NBA is actively conspiring against the Timberwolves as part of a big-market/big-name-players playoff agenda. When asked if a more tightly whistled game made it more difficult for the Wolves to defend in the second half, Gobert answered with the following rant, via Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.
"It's bulls--t. Bulls--t. It's really not fair," Gobert said of the officiating. "Every night. I've been in this league for 10 years and I try to always give the benefit of the doubt, but it's hard for me to think [the officials] are not trying to help [the Suns] win tonight. It's hard for me to think they didn't try to help the Warriors win the other night, or the Sacramento Kings the other night.
"It's just so obvious," Gobert continued. "As a basketball player that's been in this league for so long, it's disrespectful, and it sucks, to be honest. We work so hard to be in a position to compete with the best, and we just get manipulated into those situations where it just impacts the game for the other team too much. They know how to do it. They do it a lot of different ways. Tonight was another way of doing it.
"But it's all good," Gobert concluded. "We understand that it's also a business. Unfortunately. It's sad, but it's good also. It's really good. But it's true. We understand that we're not the biggest of the markets, and we're a team that ... I think you want to see [Kevin Durant] in the playoffs, Steph [Curry] in the playoffs, you want to see LeBron in the playoffs. The Timberwolves are not there yet. We got to keep putting our head down, keep playing through that, and it's frustrating for sure, especially for me."
The NBA fined Gobert $25,000 for the comments, and Minnesota coach Chris Finch also got a $15,000 fine for his "public criticism of the officiating."
And now a couple things about the rant. First, the Sacramento Kings are a tiny market, so Gobert suggesting refs are favoring them as part of a big-market agenda makes no sense. If you want to be a conspiracy theorist, you could argue that the NBA loves the story of the Kings, and as such, having them in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 would warrant some extra officiating love. But even if you want to go that route, Sacramento clinched a top-four seed on Wednesday and was virtually assured of a playoff berth when the team faced the Wolves on Monday.
Gobert's second example of this officiating conspiracy beneficiary was the Warriors, who take fewer free throws than any team in the league and give up the sixth-most. Also, in Minnesota's win over the Warriors, the Wolves were awarded 25 free throws to Golden State's 17.
That's not to say that more pivotal calls didn't go against Minnesota (it's not just about the total), and surely you can understand the logic of the NBA wanting Stephen Curry, who's a human business boon, to get into the playoffs, but in this case, the data doesn't support Gobert's claim.
As for the Suns, they shot 27 free throws to Minnesota's 12, but for the record, I hate when people use free-throw totals as some sort of ironclad evidence of unbalanced officiating. If you shoot more free throws than your opponent, it's usually because you were beating your opponent.
But what's really funny about Gobert saying the Kevin Durant team is getting all the calls is that the Suns' own coach, Monty Williams, was just fined $20K for saying his team got robbed by the officials in a recent loss to the Lakers -- again, citing free throw totals.
"46 to 20. That's it. That's all I got to say."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 23, 2023
Monty Williams dropped the mic and walked out as #Lakers went 36-of-46 from the line to #Suns 15-of-20 tonight.
Phoenix lost 122-111. pic.twitter.com/KKUvGMHwqN
Moral of the story: Everyone thinks the refs are screwing their team over. Have you ever watched Luka Doncic play? If ever there were a box-office player that the NBA would pull shady strings to ensure his participation in the postseason, it would be Doncic, and yet this man complains about calls like it's his religion. The man is convinced that he's getting the rawest of deals every minute of every game in which he plays. Because yeah, I'm quite sure the NBA is actively working against Luka Doncic.
In the end, we all know the officials tend to error on the side of star players, and it's not a stretch to say that courtesy doesn't extend to their teams as a whole, consciously or subconsciously. But ultimately, this is just a tired complaint. The reality is, the no-name challenger isn't likely to win by decision against Mike Tyson. If it's close, the champ gets the benefit of the doubt.
The Wolves have made this too close. If they didn't lay an egg over the first half of the season, they would have some playoff cushion and every game, and certainly every whistle, wouldn't be so important. Gobert wouldn't have to sound this desperate if the Wolves weren't, well, this desperate.