With the NBA Finals set to begin Thursday night, now seems like a pretty good time to ask this question:

Which game are they going to play?

Are they going to play the game with the written rules, or the unwritten rules, or the rules they use when a star has the ball, or the rules they invoke when "the intensity has risen," or the rules that Joey Crawford's crew uses, or the rules that the NBA issued when all the dust settled last week, or all of the above?

Confused? So are referees, players, fans, coaches and league officials. It's like trying to understand a Picasso: Everybody has a different interpretation.

Last week's non-call of a foul by Derek Fisher in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals confirmed it: This game is a mess.

How many times have you heard one of the "expert" TV commentators at the outset of a game talk about how important it is that the players get a feel for "how the game will be called."

The rules of this game are open to far too much interpretation, or just plain not enforced correctly.

The game's flaws were made glaringly apparent during the last two seconds of Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series when Brent Barry was fouled by Fisher as he attempted the potential winning shot from 3-point range. No foul was called, and Barry, one of the game's best free-throw shooters, missed an awkward field goal

attempt. The Spurs lost by two points and fell hopelessly behind in the series, 3-1.

Afterward, NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre tried to quell the controversy by making this statement: "There is an explanation in the rule book that there are times during games when the degree of certainty necessary to determine a foul involving physical contact is higher. That comes during impact time when the intensity has risen, especially at the end of a game. In other words, if you're going to call something then, be certain."

If McIntyre is to be believed, referees are supposed to be more certain of a foul call at the end of a game than during the rest of the game, which implies that they aren't being as certain and correct with their calls most of the time. Is it any wonder that the NBA is 46 minutes of ticky-tac calls and two minutes of mayhem? Is McIntyre saying the first 46 minutes just aren't very important?

If there are going to be unwritten rules, they should make them written rules to eliminate the guessing game. Isn't that why we have rules in the first place? If they're going to allow more contact in the final two minutes, then write it in the rules.

Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' head coach for 12 years, said he had never heard of the explanation McIntyre offered. Wouldn't it be a good idea to let coaches in on the secret?

Twenty-four hours after Game 4 ended, Fisher was called for a foul by the NBA front office, which released an official statement that read, "With the benefit of instant replay, it appears a foul call should have been made."

Talk about a late whistle.

Actually, anyone with eyeballs could have seen it was a foul, with or without instant replay. No one disputed whether a foul occurred. The only question was whether the call should be made, and this is where the idiocy begins.

The argument ran that refs don't want to make a call that will decide the game, but they already do that by choosing not to make a call (surely Fisher's foul affected Barry's shot). This unwritten rule of the game has been around forever, but it's silly and nonsensical. The simplest remedy — the only remedy — is to call every minute of the game the same.

No one will ever write into the rules that the referees will be more lenient in the final minutes of a game, because it would create even more physical mayhem. So they'll go on winking at the rules in the game's final minutes, and almost everyone seems to buy into it.

Even Popovich.

"If you talk to an official, the official will tell you that the game is called at the end of the game exactly like it is during the meat of the game," the coach said. "That's their story and they're going to stand by it.

"In reality, I don't think that's true, and I can give a thousand examples that things are called differently down the stretch where I think most referees feel — and I agree with them — that things need to be more definitive before you're going to make a call. A referee is going to be hesitant to make a call that could decide a game at the end unless it's really either gross or obvious. So, that's why I said, if I was an official, I would not have called that a foul at the end of the game."

This is a popular but flawed rationalization. If a referee whistles Fisher for a foul in the closing seconds, he is not determining the outcome of the game — Fisher did that by making the mistake of fouling Barry, and he should have to pay for it according to the written rules of the game.

Some observers declared that Barry should have "sold" the foul. Great idea. We need more flopping and acting.

Keep it simple: Call the game according to the rules in the rulebook.


E-mail: [email protected]