If there's such a thing as telling the truth too often, George Karl pleads guilty. Maybe that's why if his Milwaukee Bucks go down, he wants it to happen with their tongues still wagging.
Trailing Philadelphia 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals and lagging even farther behind in the spin-the-refs contest, one of the NBA's best coaches, and by far its most candid, shared a story with his team after practice Thursday.
Like so much else Karl says, it contained more valor than discretion.
''It had to do with my first year in coaching,'' Karl said over the phone from his office in Milwaukee. ''I was 32, working in Cleveland and we hadn't made the playoffs in something like 10 years. We drew the Celtics in the first round, led every game with two minutes to go, got some horrible calls and lost the series 3-1.
''So at the end of Game 4, I came out in the news conference and just said what was on my mind: 'We got screwed.' Just like that.
''A little while later, I ran into Jack McMahon, a buddy who was an assistant in Philadelphia at the time, and he pulled me over to the side. He said, 'George, get in line. We've been getting screwed like that for years.' So I told my guys this afternoon, 'Gentlemen, get in line. It's not the first time you got bad whistles and it won't be the last.'
''I told them,'' Karl said, ''anger is fine, so long as it doesn't drain our energy.''
Considering how Milwaukee has behaved so far this series, Karl's words amounted to waving a red cape in front of his already bullish Bucks.
They complained throughout the playoffs about being treated like a small-market team, both by NBC and the NBA and they might have a point. The Bucks have been to the free throw line nearly 60 fewer times during the series -- Philly's edge is 134-77 -- and they've been slapped with eight technicals to just one for the 76ers. Yet, with all the complaining the Bucks have done already, more fuel is the last thing Karl's squad needs. Even so, he went back on the offensive.
''The problem with the league right now is the referees are not held accountable, at least not accountable enough,'' he said. ''We're not allowed to talk about them, pinpoint bad calls or be specific. They have the freedom and ego that allows them to be more powerful than they should.''
Whether Karl is right is hardly the point, since complaining about the officiating only makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. He went on the warpath after Game 2, when Milwaukee set a playoff record by making just two free throws, and the Bucks have been paying ever since.
In Game 4, Glenn Robinson, who'd taken 77 shots to that point without a single foul call in his favor, threw a fit and got ejected with a minute to go in an 89-83 loss.
In Game 5, Sam Cassell hit consecutive jumpers to build a 63-55 lead, then got whistled for fouling Allen Iverson on a 3-pointer. A few well-chosen words later, he gifted Iverson a fourth free throw by getting a technical.
Not long after, Robinson rang up five straight Milwaukee points, then lost his composure, shoving Tyrone Hill beneath the basket to earn a flagrant foul. For good measure, Tim Thomas got the Bucks' second flagrant of the night in the final quarter. For all that, the Bucks wound up losing by a point.
''We gave them 10 points,'' Robinson complained.
''We definitely lost it,'' echoed Scott Williams.
Asked afterward about his team's loss of composure, Karl said a few things about how hard the Bucks played and stormed out. The span of 24 hours barely softened his stance.
''We didn't lose our composure,'' he said, then paused. ''OK, maybe Sam did -- a little.
''But the foul calls were still bad calls. If the technical never happened, those three bad calls still cost us 12 points.''
Karl has never been shy about speaking his mind, something that cost him a $50,000 fine just weeks ago when he slammed his former bosses in Seattle. Then, just as the conference finals got rolling, he furnished the 76ers and Dikembe Mutomobo with some bulletin-board material by saying the club gave up too much to acquire their tough-as-nails center. Mutombo's play in the series has said otherwise.
What Karl seems to have forgotten is that wielding a scalpel sometimes does the job better than swinging a broadsword. In the same way the 76ers schooled the Bucks on how to get away with all the little pushes and shoves disguised as good defense, his counterpart reminded Karl that tweaking the refs might be more effective than bludgeoning them.
''If there's a conspiracy to put us in the NBA Finals,'' Philadelphia coach Larry Brown said, ''I'm for that.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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