THE NBA is not happy that tensions between teams and referees seem to be rising.
Then again, 'tis the season.
Playoff-race pressure is real, and the NBA thinks — or hopes — that some tantrums in recent weeks can be attributed to that and not an eroding of the always-tenuous relationship between those who commit infractions and those who call them. Golden State coach Steve Kerr smashing clipboards and Houston star James Harden calling out longtime official Scott Foster are sights and sounds that the league doesn't want, so the NBA is once again reaching out to teams to offer reminders about not going too far when ripping the refs.
"This is the dark ages of the season," said Michelle Johnson, the NBA's senior vice president and head of referee operations. "Teams are shaping up where they stand and it matters more to some teams than others, and some coaches do tactical outbursts for the good of their teams. So even if we go to teams and they don't have a lot of issues ... we want to keep the dialogue open."
Kerr got fined $25,000 earlier this month for verbally abusing referee Ken Mauer, and the tirade was at the level where the Warriors' coach obviously knew it would be costing him cash so he decided to get his money's worth. He got ejected, the Warriors lost that night in Portland, but writing that check probably earned him some more points with players who always need to know that their coach has their back.
Kerr actually likes Mauer, and believes he's one of the best refs in the league.
That being said, Kerr also said the coach-ref dynamic is almost always weird.
"I don't know why anybody would want to be a ref," Kerr said. "What a brutal job."
Harden also got fined $25,000 for saying that Foster should no longer work Houston's games, after the Rockets were upset with a number of calls in their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Foster is traditionally one of the league's highest-rated refs, and it's a really good bet that at some point in this postseason the Rockets will be playing a big game and Foster will be out there.
Johnson and referee-turned-league-executive Monty McCutchen have made improving relations a top priority. They're talking to every team again about finding common ground — just as they did around this time last year.
"I think there's progress," Johnson said. "It's still the same passionate game, a tough game and the stakes are up now."
Players and coaches have been fined more than $2.2 million already this season for technicals, ejections and other reasons for sanctioning by the league office — not counting salaries lost to suspensions.
And if there's any good to be derived from behaving badly, it's this: That $2.2 million (and more to come) goes to charities chosen by the NBA and the players' union.
Forget his streak of eight straight appearances in the NBA Finals. LeBron James' streak of 13 straight trips to the playoffs is in major peril.
James and the Los Angeles Lakers (29-30) are currently 10th in the Western Conference. And the Lakers do not have the easiest stretch run in the NBA, either.
When he signed with L.A., James knew getting the Lakers to the playoffs in Year 1 would be a test. But it's proving to be a bigger mountain to climb than he imagined, partly because of injuries that the Lakers have been dealing with and partly because not all of his teammates have a real understanding yet of what it takes to get into the postseason.
"I knew it was going to be very challenging, just because of the experience that the roster had at that point in time," James said. "I knew it was going to be challenging from that sense, but I felt like we could still play better basketball."
They still have to face Milwaukee and Utah twice, plus have a five-game Eastern Conference road trip in mid-March and four back-to-backs left to navigate. Among the other top teams left on the Lakers' schedule: Boston, Denver, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Portland and Toronto.
Assuming it'll take 44 wins — basically the average needed over the last five years — to secure the No. 8 seed in the West, that means the Lakers would have to finish 15-8 to get into the playoffs.
The Orlando Magic are on their hottest run in more than seven years.
Orlando's win in Toronto on Sunday (Monday, Manila time) was the eighth for Steve Clifford's club in its last 10 games. That's the first 8-2 stretch for the Magic since going 8-2 from Feb. 1-17, 2012.
The coach of that Orlando team? Stan Van Gundy, who just happened to be assisted by ... Steve Clifford.
THE WEEK AHEAD
A game to watch each day this week:
— Monday, Golden State at Charlotte: Stephen Curry goes back to his hometown, after All-Star weekend there was a Curry family celebration.
— Tuesday, Oklahoma City at Denver: Paul George has played himself into the MVP race, and the Nuggets' late-season schedule is brutally hard.
— Wednesday, Milwaukee at Sacramento: A win over the team with the NBA's best record would be a big help to the Kings' postseason hopes.
— Thursday, Miami at Houston: A brutal back-to-back for the Heat, who have Golden State at home on Wednesday and then go to the Rockets.
— Friday, Charlotte at Brooklyn: Few might have guessed last summer that these clubs meeting on March 1 would have postseason implications.
— Saturday, Orlando at Indiana: The Pacers, even without Victor Oladipo, keep plugging along, while the Magic have a real shot at a playoff spot.
— Sunday, Toronto at Detroit: Dwane Casey's new team plays host to Dwane Casey's old team, and right now every result matters to both clubs.