Monday, June 09, 2008


Throughout this (and many) year's NBA playoffs, refereeing has been a problem. Last night's game was called with almost no objectivity or precision which has resulted in unwarranted questioning of the fairness of the Celtics' victory. It's time to have a conversation about how the NBA can effectively shore up their officiating corps so that the game is more watchable and more fair.

Regarding gameplay, it's easy to diagnose the problem - the refs are blowing their whistles too much. They seem to err on the side of making a call despite the damage the constant whistle-blowing does to the pace of the game and the competitive balance. From opening tip to closing buzzer in last night's game, if any referee saw something that might be interpreted as a touch foul, they called it. It didn't even matter if it was off the ball and away from the play. It didn't matter if the referee didn't have a good sight line or if the call was based on an interpretation of a reaction. Amazingly, the only time the referees seemed willing to swallow their whistles was when there was genuine contact during difficult but dangerous offensive foul-or-blocking-foul "50/50" calls.

I recently watched the Stanley Cup and was pleasantly surprised by the uninterrupted pace that was the direct result of restraint by the referees. Of course, there were bad calls, but they mattered less because more was decided when the puck was on the ice. The reduction in the play stoppages made the game much more engrossing and exciting and I found myself concentrating on what was playing out in front of me much more than I have during this year's Finals. In light of the fact that I know almost nothing about hockey and barely follow it and have been a basketball fan since childhood, this is distressing. I can't imagine I'm the only one who feels this way.

The best thing about the reduction in calls during the hockey game was the shift in focus from the referees to the players. When I watch a basketball game, I am conscious of the effect of the referees perhaps every other trip down the floor. In the Stanley Cup, they were ancillary, keeping the game clean but otherwise putting the onus on the players. If the NBA was played this way, the game would be much-improved.

As a result of the way the refs called the game last night, I've read this morning numerous complaints about Boston-biased officiating. There were certainly some questionable calls that went the Celtics' way. Foremost among these were the two off-the-ball fouls the called on Kobe as he tried to get through screens. However, I don't believe that the free-throw disparity (which was 38-10 for the Celtics) showed that the officials were biased against the Lakers.

The Lakers lack of free throw attempts was caused by their reluctance to attack the hoop and their limited commitment to maintaining a presence in the post. Frankly, I can't think of Kobe driving to the hoop once, except for the quasi-fadeaway bank shots he executed on a couple of possessions. Most of the contact between the teams was during rebounding or off of the ball, and I don't think anyone would allege that Boston was beating up Kobe, Derek Fisher, or Gasol, who were responsible for most of the offensive execution. The only hard foul last night that I remember was on Rondo when he went up for a probable dunk attempt.

The fact of the matter is that the actual fouls called last night were pretty even - 28 against the Lakers, 21 against the Celtics. The Lakers couldn't stop penetration by Leon Powe (who shot thirteen free throws), and aside from him, none of the Celtics starters shot more than seven free throws. (Kobe also shot seven).

In fact, the only Laker who consistently tried to get the rim was Pau Gasol, and he was rarely successful at getting good position when the Lakers were looking for him, which was also rare. When he did get close, he generally beat his defender badly, and that is why he was 8-12. Oftentimes when there was contact, he initiated it as he drove to the hoop, especially with his off-hand. The bottom line is that Pau's lack of production had as much to do with lack of position as it did with clearing out the post for isolating Kobe or moving to the top of the key to execute the triangle offense and his game was not affected in any meaningful way by Celtics fouling.

Of the other Lakers, Lamar Odom was content to settle for jumpers, and the role players (Fisher, Radmonovic, Vujacic, Farmer, and Walton), who are jump-shooters anyway, were not attempting to get to the hoop or draw contact at all. I don't know what play Lakers fans can really complain about, unless they believe that the Celtics shouldn't have gotten as many attempts as they did.

On that front, it seems to me that it was pretty fair. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen combined for five free throws. Rondo shot six (which he definitely deserved). Paul Pierce shot seven and was robbed of a four-point play for an alleged travel that I thought was more of a message to him to stop trying to make the refs call the "Barry Foul". (For the record, the correct call was a no-call, because Pierce jumped into the defender and the defender jumped into him. The shot should have counted. As a matter of fact, in the vast majority of questionable situations [especially the early Kobe foul calls] I am convinced that the correct call would have been the no call.)

I just don't see a lot of evidence that the Celtics were unfair beneficiaries of the shoddy officiating. The Lakers should have attacked the hoop and they failed to. Pau Gasol only took twelve shots even though he was doing damage. Kobe shot mostly fallaways and pullups. It's true that Lamar Odom was mugged on a rebound at the end of the first half and Gasol may have deserved a whistle or too, but you could say the same about a number of Celtics possessions.

The real issue is not whether the Celtics or the Lakers were favored, though. Last night's game was not fun to watch because the only time the referees relaxed was when it was a blowout. (This was also when the game got exciting and there started to be a meaningful give-and-take between the teams.)

The NBA Finals should be as exciting as any championship game, and until the referees show greater restraint, the Finals will be the ugly sister of the major American sports. I love basketball and I can barely enjoy watching the games. I am not one of these bleeding heart "oh if only it was like the good old days" fans and I'm not trying to show how much I know by constantly complaining about the incompetency of teams/coaches/refs/administrators. I have two eyes and I like basketball and I know that if the NBA doesn't get its refereeing sorted out people are not going to continue to enjoy watching big basketball games, even if this year's rivalry produces a misleading ratings jump. If anything, the jump in ratings is an indictment of our current era, because it shows that people would rather connect to the past then take an interest in the future.

I don't know why the league or the referees are doing things the way they are and why last night was so bad. Whether the officials were making an unnecessary attempt to "take control" or "establish guidelines" by making "statement calls" or whether they are just incompetent doesn't matter. The athletes in the NBA are tough and do not need touch foul-calls unless the foul affects a shot. Fat, middle-aged men and women all over America are able to comprehend this system in pick-up basketball.

The NBA's referees need to let the players play and have the courage to step in only when they feel that an offensive player is impeded or a foul is in bad faith or the result of being out of control. I can only imagine how much more enjoyable it would be to watch uninterrupted basketball (though I'm sure ABC would lose a lot of money in advertising revenue). No rule change could help the game as much as this.

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