NBA officiating, by its very nature, is set up to make you mad. No surprise it has been a source of controversy throughout these 2012 NBA playoffs.
So many of the calls that are made hinge on the personal judgement of the men and women who wear the grey polyester shirts, and they often have to be made in a split second. That's a scenario that is going to leave fans, coaches, players and the media feeling cheated when they find themselves on what they perceive to be the wrong end of those decisions.
That's why criticism of referees is nothing new either. At any point during the NBA season, you can find someone, somewhere, saying something unflattering about the officials that they had to deal with on that particular night. Sometimes it's a player, sometimes it's a coach, sometimes a general manager or owner even fires a shot or two. The blogosphere is filled with criticism, and thousands of remote controls get thrown against living room walls every season because Bennett Salvatore refuses to give your team a call. Having your team's fortune resting on one individual's interpretation of the block/charge violation at any given moment is quite frankly a recipe for frustration.
Factor all of that in and it's usually why I roll my eyes at those who are constantly complaining about the referees. When words like "screwjob" and "conspiracy" start getting thrown around, you totally lose me. I always believed that referees were doing the best job they could and that the disdain towards them was usually a result of upset fans and players trying to rationalize a loss. It's much easier to blame the referees of course, opposed to admitting that your team was outplayed by a superior opponent. However, game four of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and Heat left me with a different impression than I had ever had before.
With 30 seconds on the clock in a tie game and the ball in the Boston Celtics possession, Kevin Garnett was whistled for an offensive foul on LeBron James underneath the hoop. In watching the replay it was revealed that James essentially grabbed Garnett and dragged him to the ground on top of him as the two engaged each other in the post. That's what the replay showed, but the call on the court of an offensive foul stood. With 21 seconds left in the contest, the Heat were given a chance to win the game in regulation.
Fast forward a few moments later to overtime and LeBron James is whistled for an offensive foul on Mickael Pietrus as he enters the paint. His sixth foul of the game, James is relegated to the pine for the rest of the night. On the replay of this foul, it's revealed that Pietrus executed a similar grab-and-drag take down maneuver that James had done on KG to draw the call earlier in the contest. LeBron was obviously shocked, although I'm not sure whether it was over his expulsion from the game or Pietrus's flawless technique.
Sunday night's game was the first time where I watched and honestly thought that the integrity of the game was being compromised by the referees. It was disappointing that both of those plays were rewarded with fouls. What was really troubling was the magnitude of the situation when they were made. Boston's life in this series and realistically, the fate of the big three, hung in the balance when they gave the Heat the chance to win it in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. LeBron's dismissal cut the legs out from under the Miami's chances in OT. Both were a result of moves that looked more suited for a Globetrotters game than an NBA court.
Ray Allen appeared to land out of bounds with the ball still in his possession before flipping it to Keyon Dooling for a three pointer. And who can forget Paul Pierce's night; he was cross-body blocked on a drive to the hoop by Wade in the first half that drew no whistle. Later on, Pierce slid in front of LeBron late in the game and drew a charge even though his heels were in the restricted area, and he too was fouled out of the game on a speculative offensive foul call.
In a series where there has already been a lot written on quick technicals and foul discrepancies, the refereeing in game four transcended bad and moved more towards the realm of abhorrent. Neither team could accuse the other side of getting some type of advantage. It was just harmful for everyone involved, including fans, who got to watch one of the most pressure filled moments we will get to enjoy during these playoffs with the league's reigning MVP and the Celtics best crunch time player fouled out on the bench.
The NBA already operates in an environment where their officials hold a great deal of influence over the game. I would never accuse a referee not named Tim Donaghy of deliberately trying to manipulate these variables (pace of play, which players are on the court, physicality, etc.), but the point is that having a crew of officials that are on top of the ball is very important to the overall quality of the game.
After watching flop artists successfully draw fouls all season long and much of the narrative of this series revolving around officiating, the NBA needs to address the refereeing issue this summer. Maybe it comes in the form of re-training and stiffer quality control. Maybe some tweaks to the rule book will help to deter all of the embellishing and make the referees' job a little easier. Maybe a new batch of officials will help to break up some of the long-standing and sometimes nasty relationships that exist between certain players, coaches and officials.
Whatever options David Stern and the NBA chooses, I hope it works. I have no interest in watching referees try to officiate within the game where they're trying to even out their last blown decision rather than calling the game in front of them. I'm growing tired of watching marquee players being held to a different set of standards than everyone else.
I'm interested in watching basketball. I want to see the best athletes in the world being the ones tipping the scales in the closing moments, especially in the playoffs.