The first-round clash between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies has been, without a doubt, one of the finest series in recent postseason history. Throw the seeding out the window—Oklahoma City may be a No. 2 and Memphis a No. 7, but that is only because the Grizzlies struggled for the first two months of the season while adapting to first-year head coach Dave Joerger and playing without an injured Marc Gasol.
In truth, this is a duel between two of the last three teams to make the Western Conference Finals, and the level of competition has been far more reminiscent of a finals series than a first-rounder.
The Grizzlies and Thunder went into overtime on Tuesday night—the first time in NBA history that two opponents have needed to go past regulation in four consecutive games, per ESPN.com. Three of those four games have featured a four-point play in the fourth quarter, which has to be some kind of unofficial record.
In the end, the Grizzlies survived a blown 20-point third-quarter lead and a waved-off Serge Ibaka putback that came a microsecond after the buzzer to defeat the Thunder by one point, 100-99. The Thunder wasted a valiant comeback and one of the best clutch defensive plays you'll ever see: Russell Westbrook's strip of Memphis point guard Mike Conley and subsequent fast-break dunk with four seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
But basketball fans aren't talking about that. Instead, they're talking about Joey Crawford...again.
The world's most prominent referee managed to run shrieking into yet another controversy on Tuesday night, as he stopped Thunder forward Kevin Durant just as he was about to take his second free throw with 27.5 seconds to go and Oklahoma City down one.
Crawford grabbed the ball from Durant for some reason and ran over to the scorer's table, demonstrably screaming at them to change the number of fouls on the scoreboard to reflect the fact that both teams were in the bonus. He then gave the ball back to Durant—an 87.3 percent free-throw shooter during the regular season—who promptly missed the shot, providing Memphis with its eventual margin of victory.
Here's a clip of the controversial play.
You've got to hand it to Crawford: He knows exactly what he wants. He wants you to listen to him.
After the game, Conley reflected on the shock both he and Durant felt at the moment of Crawford's free-throw hijacking, per Daily Thunder's Royce Young:
Mike Conley on Crawford: "I looked at KD and we were just like "What is Joey doing?" But hey, I guess it worked at the end of night."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
It certainly did work out for Conley and the Grizzlies.
Of course, Durant is a professional basketball player, and men in his profession are all expected to be able to make free throws in the face of distraction. To his credit, Durant did not use the Crawford incident as an excuse, per Young:
Durant on Crawford's free throw steal: "I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down and unfortunately I didn't ...."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
Durant cont'd: "I don't know what happened, but I've got to make that free throw."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 30, 2014
Still, that was a critical moment in a critical game, and Crawford shoehorned himself into that moment in the loudest, most demonstrative way possible.
And it was not the first time.
Vintage Joey Crawford
If you were to tell a casual NBA fan that a referee grabbed the basketball from a player and started screaming at the scorer's table, there is an excellent chance that fan would reply: "I bet it was Joey Crawford."
The man has a reputation, to say the least.
Joey Crawford, 62, has been an NBA referee for 37 years. He has called some of the biggest games in NBA history. And he long ago established himself as one of the most controversial referees in the game.
Perhaps no referee in any sport has sought out the limelight as often as Crawford—"the NBA's resident diva official," as Complex magazine's Gavin Evans calls him.
A cursory YouTube search of "Joey Crawford block call" produces this absolute gem:
I can only hope I am that spry when I'm 62 years old.
Crawford is famous for his long-running rivalry with the San Antonio Spurs. He once ejected legendary Spurs big man Tim Duncan for laughing on the bench.
But Crawford has been in rare form in these playoffs—injecting himself into three separate incidents in three separate series.
He slid in front of Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Steph Curry, who had already hit five three-pointers at that point, as Curry lined up for what looked to be a wide-open three-pointer in the first quarter of Game 4 on Sunday:
Curry missed the shot, proving that Kevin Durant isn't the only shooter whom Crawford has iced during these playoffs.
In Game 3 of the Portland-Houston series on Friday night, Crawford's refereeing drew the ire of fans, commentators and Twitter. Despite the fact that Rockets guard Troy Daniels hit the game-winning three-pointer, Crawford's name was the one that ended up trending on Twitter.
Per The Oregonian's John Canzano: "'Joey Crawford,' not 'Troy Daniels,' was trending on Twitter. Nobody should be happy with that. Did Crawford cost Portland the game? No. But he did influence how it was played."
The Summer of Crawford
Crawford found himself trending on Twitter yet again after Tuesday night's game.
I find it astonishing that Kevin Durant, the league's probable MVP, missed a crucial late-game free throw and yet didn't stir the online discussion quite like Crawford did.
But will this change any time soon? Of course not.
Joey Crawford has been around for nearly four decades. His diva tendencies are well known throughout the basketball world, but he has value to the league as its No. 1 referee enforcer.
In Grantland's oral history of 2004's "Malice at the Palace," The Indianapolis Star's Mark Montieth, who was present during that infamous brawl, expressed his wish that Crawford had been calling the game that night:
People complain about referees like Joey Crawford and [his] quick whistle. I guarantee if Joey Crawford was working that game, it wouldn’t have happened because he would have controlled it. He would have called technicals and gotten people out of there.
Joey Crawford may be virtually unbearable, but it has been clear for a long time that the league values him.
So get ready for plenty more incidents involving Crawford during these playoffs.