If you were an NBA referee, would you want fans to think you were inept or assume you are corrupt?
Heading into Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference final, Boston Celtics fans are left wondering if the first two games against the Miami Heat were marred simply by bad calls or something far more nefarious.
Are too many calls left up to interpretation? Do NBA referees have too much power to decide the outcome of games because the league has always worked under an unwritten rulebook that star players get better treatment?
Moreover, if NBA executives are anonymously telling reporters they think the NBA draft lottery was rigged in favor of the league-owned Hornets, it is really not that far fetched for Boston fans to suggest—and suggest they did—that the conference finals are rigged in favor of the league-darling Heat.
The play-by-play from overtime of Game 2 reads: "MISS Rondo 1' Driving Layup, Haslem REBOUND. Haslem 1' Dunk (James). TIMEOUT."
That certainly doesn't tell the whole story.
In a tie game in overtime, Rajon Rondo—in the midst of a career outing—drove the lane and missed a lollipop, cross-handed layup from just under the rim. Udonis Haslem picked up the rebound, dished it and ran down the court in time for an easy dunk. The Celtics called timeout, but the Heat never looked back, extending their overtime lead to seven before ultimately winning 115-111 in a crucial game at home.
Again, that's just what the play-by-play says, and certainly what the NBA wants us to remember. But it's impossible, still, two days later, to ignore the fact that three officials completely missed Rondo getting smacked in the face by Dwyane Wade.
The no-call not only took two free throws away from Boston, but by letting play go on with Rondo careening down to the floor, the refs gave Miami an extra man on the fast break that led to a dunk, timeout and complete shift of momentum.
Referees are best when we don't notice them, and I know—before all the referees of the world start chiming in—that even bad officials get 90 percent of the calls right and nobody writes articles about all the good calls. That said, no referee apologist can justify some of the nonsense we have seen this week.
Ken Mauer, a veteran official who is no stranger to controversy, was standing right on the baseline in clear view of the play but didn't call a foul. Neither did James Capers or Tom Washington. Did they all miss the call, or did they see it and swallow their whistles?
Of the Heat's final nine points in overtime, seven were scored from the free-throw line. The Heat shot 10 free throws in overtime to the Celtics' two. In the second half alone, LeBron James earned as many trips to the charity stripe as the entire Celtics team.
It's not to say James didn't deserve those attempts, but in a hard-fought game that went to overtime, it seems impossible the Heat could have just one player with more than three fouls and the Celtics had five, including three who fouled out.
Mistakes like that resonate. That one call became bigger than just Game 2, or even the Eastern Conference finals. Following the game, a debate broke out in the Bleacher Report offices with some folks wondering why the rules of the game afford the referees so much power, questioning if the rules are too undefined for the league's own good.
I'm not sure I buy that. Do people really think the rules in the NBA are so subjective that the referees have the freedom to call fouls on one play and not the next? Isn't a foul the same for every player on every play?
Wait, let me rephrase that: shouldn't a foul be the same for every player on every play?
NBA refs notoriously excuse travel calls (not a foul but still a violation of the rules and a turnover when called) but big men like Kevin Garnett have been whistled for stutter steps quite frequently. Is the extra step on a drive to the lane acceptable but the stutter step to start the drive not?
Garnett got whistled in Game 1 on a delay-of-game technical for barely touching the basketball after it went through the hoop. Yes, that was technically a violation, but it was hardly a necessary or routine call.
It's not as cut and dried as Celtics fans think, but it sure feels like the big calls are all going the Heat's way.
It's an easy leap for fans of the losing team to think their franchise is getting the short end of calls in an effort to help the more popular team advance in the NBA playoffs. The irony, however, in assuming the referees would have called overtime in favor of the Heat is that the league should have wanted Boston to win that game, evening the series and putting far more focus on Friday's Game 3.
With the Heat up 2-0, a lot of air was let out of the ball as the series moves back to Boston and also deflating the conspiracy theory perpetuated by disgruntled Celtics fans.
Make no mistake, the league certainly would prefer the Heat in the NBA Finals, but they also want at least a six or seven games in the conference final. I hate to break it to Boston fans, but maybe the overtime in Game 2 was nothing more than run-of-the-mill bad officiating.
It is just so easy to play the conspiracy card because referees in the NBA have been shown to be—how to put this delicately—unscrupulous in the past, both on and off the court. It's not a far leap to assume an NBA official would be involved in calling the game in favor of one team over another, leaving the official, and the league, at risk for certain assumptions.
Again, it may just go back to the often unreasonable demand fans have for higher-quality officiating. The better technology gets in sports, the more exposed referees become.
The old saying in football is that there is a hold on every play and the officials are subjective in deciding which penalties they call. Years ago that used to be nothing more than a cliché, but now TV networks can put isolation cameras on every matchup in the trenches to find every single holding call that isn't being flagged.
If a player gets a late hit or a hit to the head and the referee doesn't throw his flag, not only do we get multiple angles of the replay, but some which show the ref staring right at the play and blowing the call.
Are those bad calls or something more conspiratorial?
It's impossible to be an official when the fans at home have a better ability to spot violations than those with the whistles.
The office debate compared the NBA to Major League Baseball, which in its own way happens to be the most and least subjective sport to officiate. Once the ball is in play, there are very few calls for an official to offer opinion. Out or safe and fair or foul are very black and white, which makes missing one of those calls infuriating for players and fans alike.
While MLB umpires continue to miss the occasional call that gets writers clamoring for instant replay (or robots) to help call the game, the rare missed call on the bases has such a small impact on a game if compared to the subjectivity of an umpire's strike zone.
If we think fouls in the NBA are subjective, try figuring out balls and strikes.
Good umps can call nine innings consistently for both teams. Even if his strike zone is a little bigger than the ump the day before, both teams are playing with the same rules.
But many umps seem to shift the zone for righties or lefties, expand the zone later in the game for starters or even squeeze relievers once the starter is removed. There is no rhyme or reason to an MLB strike zone. Despite countless efforts to grade managers and standardize the zone for hitters and pitchers, nothing has worked and nothing has changed.
And yet when an umpire makes a bad call, no one raises hell that Bud Selig is pulling his strings in an effort to perpetuate the league-wide agenda. Very rarely will a missed call in the NFL lead people to suggest Roger Goodell is puppeteering a conspiracy against one team. (To be fair, Goodell has instituted many other ways to do that.)
In the NBA, when a missed call in overtime leads to a shift in momentum for the team that happens to fit the preferred narrative for the league, all anyone can think is that David Stern is playing Geppetto. The no-call on Rondo—heck, the whole game—could have been nothing more than poor officiating. Still, it's hard to blame Boston fans for thinking something more unsavory is at play.
If that's the case, at least the league will want the Celtics to win Game 3. A sweep isn't good for anyone's bottom line.