None of this is good.
It’s a bad look for James Harden, after a game where he took 15 free throws, to say he wasn’t getting favorable whistles. It’s counterproductive for the NBA to say there were three uncalled fouls against LeBron James in the waning moments of a Finals rematch. It’s troubling that referees are too often part of the postgame story.
This is Christmas week, an unofficial start date of the NBA season for casual fans who shift their focus from football to basketball.
Those new eyeballs are not seeing the league at its best.
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Referees have been in the news plenty this season, especially this week. No one wants that. Fans pay to see triple-doubles, not double-technicals. The latest ref drama was Thursday night in Boston, where the Celtics rallied from 26 points down to beat Houston — but postgame talk was dominated by discussion of two late offensive foul calls against Harden.
“You never want to see a game end like that,” Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert said.
Boston loved the calls and Houston hated them and everyone else is likely split down the middle. Thing is, fixating solely on those two whistles robs the league of a chance to revel in what should have been considered a great basketball game.
The two calls against Harden came in the final 8 seconds, both pushoffs drawn by Boston’s Marcus Smart.
It is undeniable that Smart is a very good defensive player.
He also has a reputation among opponents for being a flopper.
On the first of the two late fouls, Smart appeared to grab Harden — who tried to get his arms free. Smart is a tough, strong guy, but when Harden made contact with him he dropped like a rock.
On the second, Harden pushed off and Smart fell again. This time, it seemed more believable. If Harden hadn’t extended his right arm so far, who knows if referee Tony Brothers (who made both calls) would have blown the whistle.
The first one didn’t look like the right call. The second one did.
Neither is why Houston lost. Houston lost because it wasted a 26-point lead. The Rockets might have had a chance to win in the last 8 seconds. But it should have never come down to officiating. And it had nothing to do with only two refs working the game; one of the three assigned sat out with a sore back.
“First of all, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game? That is the first question,” Harden said. “A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. How else am I supposed to get open? A guy has two arms wrapped around my whole body.”
Harden also shot just 7 for 27 from the field.
Fans just want the good stuff. They don’t want stories of bad calls and ref suspensions for getting physical with a player, like Courtney Kirkland did with Shaun Livingston. They probably don’t want to see what went on late in the Cleveland-Golden State marquee Christmas game, either.
James got fouled three times by Kevin Durant in the final moments — with the Cavs down three. None of the three got called.
James is 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, a problem to defend and a problem to officiate. He suffers from the same issue Shaquille O’Neal did; when you’re the strongest guy on the floor, opponents tend to be allowed to get away with more. He can get clobbered, but won’t always get the call.
“For me, the worst thing is when I actually go over and talk to the ref and they say ‘it was nothing,'” James said.
The NBA ultimately said James was right about his belief that Durant fouled him, confirming as much in the Last 2-Minute Report on Tuesday. The L2MR is a great tool, though meaningless. It’s probably safer for players and coaches to think they were the victims of a bad call instead of having those suspicions confirmed by the league, which isn’t going to change the outcomes anyway. (“Sorry, LeBron, you were right. KD did hit you. Our bad. You still lose.”)
It’s difficult to say if the report helps or hinders the player-ref relationship, which is somewhat tense at the moment.
ESPN reported last week that the leadership from the players’ association and the referees’ union met with hopes of a better relationship between the sides. It’s a nice idea but disagreements are inevitable.
Another issue: the referee corps is changing. Seasoned vets like Danny Crawford, Joey Crawford and most recently Monty McCutchen have all called their last games. Refs are getting younger, newer. Growing pains are happening.
“You can’t deny that there’s a transition period right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
True, but no one would ever want to see a Finals game get decided by a late pushoff.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org