Reflecting the sentiment of eminent philosopher Bubba Smith - who once explained his involvement in a football brawl by saying, "The whole thing started when he hit me back" - the Jazz-Lakers series comes into Game 3 tonight in the Salt Palace with the world champion Lakers accusing the Jazz of not playing by the rules.
"Our frustration," said Laker Coach Pat Riley after last Tuesday's 101-97 Jazz win in the Forum unexpectedly evened the series at one game apiece, "comes from attacking an illegal zone defense . . . I know that sounds like sour grapes, but that's the reality."Riley sent a copy of the smoking gun, in this case the game film, to the league office. He said it contained 29 instances of illegal defense.
The Jazz's reaction has of course been one of indignation. "They said that?" said Jazz Coach Frank Layden. "We played the same defense we played Sunday, when we lost. That's the way we've played defense all year long."
The NBA bans zone defense because it clutters up the key. The theory goes that if zone defense were to be coupled with the 24-second shot clock the game would be turned into a fast-forwarded version of H-O-R-S-E.
The problem is in enforcement. Zone defenses are about as easy to conclusively detect as, say, illegal aliens coming across the Rio Grande - at night.
For instance, sometimes it's perfectly OK for a defensive player to leave the player he is assigned to guard. Basically there are two such times. One is when the offense runs a cross play or a pick and two defensive players are allowed to switch men in the process. The other is when an offensive player has the ball and is going for the basket, at which point he can be swarmed.
On these two basic exceptions there are a number of variations and allowances. For one thing, a defensive player has to only be within one zone of the player he's guarding (the floor is divided into several zones, designated by lines and assorted hash marks on the floor). For another, it's allowable for a defensive player to drop back into the key for 2.9 seconds as long as he doesn't cross the imaginary midpoint line, which runs down the center of the court.
Got that? Well, neither do the NBA referees. Einstein had E=MC2. The NBA has its zone defense guidelines. The Jazz's Layden swears that Darell Garretson, the NBA's boss of officials, told him earlier this season: "We'll take care of the zone problems next year, when we get the third official."
It's no well-guarded secret that most NBA teams currently operate on the fringe of the zone laws, getting away with what they can under the existing loopholes.
"Everybody does it - we're the only team in the league that doesn't," said the Lakers Mychal Thompson . . . and if you'll buy that he can also get you a good deal on Catalina Island.
Thompson said he hopes the referees are paying attention to what Riley's been saying, particularly in regard to Jazz center Mark Eaton, who, in the Lakers' opinion, had an obnoxious tendency during Tuesday's game to hover near anyone wearing yellow and purple who either had the ball or who wanted it.
The fact that Mark Eaton is 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds and is a kind of walking, talking zone D in the first place never entered into the Lakers' discussions. If Eaton stretches his arms, he's already exceeded the one-zone limit.
On their side of the issue, the Jazz are trying to act equally as incredulous as L.A. Now that the issue has been brought up, they're saying the Lakers run zone defense as well as anyone they've seen this side of UCLA. They're saying the Lakers trap with a 1-3-1 configuration so well-crafted they should conduct clinics.
Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach in charge of defense, had his say on this subject midway through Game 2 when he leaped off the Jazz bench and yelled at an official, "Hey, that's a -- -- -- zone defense!"
He wanted the Lakers to get a technical foul. Instead, he got one.
"I always thought the Lakers were the most blatant zone defenders in the NBA," said Eaton, who is steadfastly maintaining his innocence. "They're just trying to stop us from playing defense the way they play defense."
Frank Layden said, "I'm flabbergasted. They're doing it more than we are."
Apart from the furor, the Lakers' whining about zone D is a backhanded compliment to the Jazz; a stamp of authenticity that the series has become a series.
The Jazz could easily have avoided all this.
The whole thing started when they won Game 2.