In the 2023 N.B.A. playoffs, LeBron James got in on the act. And Stephen Curry, and the league’s most valuable player, Joel Embiid. Kyle Lowry keeps trying, but oh does he need help. Even Nikola Jokic has taken a bow.
Yes, this postseason has showcased the beauty of basketball. The upstarts, upsets and dominance. The Miami Heat putting the kibosh on the comeback of comebacks in the Eastern Conference finals. But it has also been marred by players of all stripes — ahem, Malik Monk, the sixth man for the Sacramento Kings — falling and flailing as if stung by a cattle prod.
All in desperate attempts to hoodwink referees into calling fouls.
Welcome to the National Basketball Floppers Association.
Flopping isn’t new, of course. In the 1970s, Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics’s fabled and curmudgeonly leader, railed on national television against the “Hollywood acting” that was sullying the game.
“N.B.A. floppers are almost always overacting,” said Anthony Gilardi, a Hollywood acting coach. “You watch these guys with their pratfalls and their on-court stunts, and it’s so over-the-top cringeworthy as to be hilarious.”
I asked Gilardi to watch video clips of sham playoff tumbles and offer an assessment. He had seen most of the plays and knew the subject well. He’s a Celtics fan who has seen all of Marcus Smart’s greatest flops.
There’s a vast difference, Gilardi said, between players reacting to contact in a way that creates an illusion that a foul has occurred and being so obvious that every fan in the arena can tell the reaction is fake. It is the difference between what we see from an Oscar nominee and an actor on a run-of-the-mill soap opera.
“In soap operas, it’s often the case you can absolutely tell they are acting,” he said, emphasizing the word the way Heat guard Max Strus would a shoulder bump. “There’s not enough subtlety to create the illusion.”
Gilardi offered a few suggestions for ways hardwood entertainers could refine their technique.
Go deeply into the part. Milk it for all it’s worth, even if that means limping after the foul has been called.
If you’re going to fake an injury, for God’s sake, get the specific body part right: No more holding your arm as if it were run over by a tank when you’ve been bumped in the chest.
Relax and focus. The art is in the subtlety, not in the effort of trying to convince.
Do all of these, and the deception won’t be so evident as to embarrass officials or raise howls from fans, cackling criticism from television analysts or a clampdown by the suits in the league office.
“If they worked on this the right way,” Gilardi said, “there’s a world where some of these flops would be so good, they might not even be considered flops. Now that is good acting.”
After seeing the N.B.A. try, and fail, to stop flopping for over a decade, today’s players can’t seem to help themselves. I don’t have a number to back this up, but the eye test tells you all you need to know. Flopping pervades the playoffs like tumbleweeds on a dusty desert plain.
Google “Mat Ishbia Playoffs Ridiculous Flop” and you’ll see even the billionaire owner of the Phoenix Suns take a courtside dive.
Bearing witness to the Warriors’ flop-heavy loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr made a personal plea to end the “gamesmanship” and canny ploys “to fool the refs.”
His solution: Have N.B.A. referees call technical fouls against floppers, as officials do in the international game. The league is now reportedly considering a test run at enforcement during summer exhibitions.
I say, not so fast.
N.B.A. referees have a hard enough time deciding whether James Harden’s carrying the ball 10 steps on his way to a layup is worth calling a travel. Now they would have the added burden of deciding, in real time, whether a foul was tried-and-true or hardwood chicanery. Odds of success? Slim.
And remember: 11 years ago, the league announced a plan to fine players for flops. Handing down $5,000 fines to obsessively ambitious, multimillionaire athletes who would walk on shards of glass to win a championship didn’t quite do the trick.
The flop, part acting and part competition, is now baked into the N.B.A. It shows off athleticism and skill, a deep thirst for winning as well as showmanship — attributes that define the league. It’s all part of the spectacle.
So why not have some fun with it? Maybe, instead of resisting and demonizing the flop, we should embrace it — but demand better acting.
Take, for instance, the back-to-back theatrics delivered by Jokic and James late in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. James’s performance was a thing to behold.
After Jokic brushed against him — yes, brushed — while attempting a pass, James broke out the vaudeville. His face contorted into a grimace. He twisted his 6-foot-9, 250-pound body, backpedaled, leaped backward and slid halfway across the width of the court until he landed at the feet of courtside spectators, spilling the drink of one who even offered James a towel. He offered a syrupy thank you in response.
What a charade!
But the flop worked. A foul was called on Jokic and the ball awarded to the Lakers. James leaped up, alert, energetic and showing not an ounce of injury. In a flash, he took an inbounds pass and dribbled upcourt.
Jokic and the Denver Nuggets still won that game, and swept that series. With the dominant way Jokic has been playing to get his team to the franchise’s first N.B.A. finals, the concept of stopping him seems like pure theater.
Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column.
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