With the Heat one loss away from elimination, and tonight's Game 6 in Miami, it should come as absolutely zero surprise that Joey Crawford will be working the game.
Joey Crawford! Just the man to swing a series. The official who occasionally sees a shrink for anger management issues, who once broke his finger calling a technical foul, and keeps an extra whistle in his pocket because he has a tendency to bite through them. The official who was suspended an entire postseason after challenging Tim Duncan to a fight, and who was called "the worst thing about the NBA" without anyone crying hyperbole.
We don't actually think Crawford is a bad referee. Which is to say: we think he's self-important, and prone to tantrums, and somehow manages to make games about him when, in a just world, we wouldn't know any referees' names, but we don't think he makes egregiously bad calls or holds grudges or gets especially swayed by home crowds. Take a look at the referee stats; Crawford's home/road splits are solidly middle-of-the-pack.
So the problem isn't Joey Crawford's bias, even the public perception that he's biased. The problem is that the NBA is aware of this perception, and is explicitly using it to stir up drama. Bad reffing isn't a bug; it's a feature!
The ratings for these finals have been disappointing. A seven-game series would be a godsend. Everyone knows the league doesn't want this to end tonight, and everyone was already expecting the referees to tip Game 6 in Miami's favor. (Recall that Tim Donaghy's crime, as far as the legal system was concerned*, was not altering his own calls, but knowing enough about his crewmates' tendencies to favor home teams, teams down in a series, etc., to make money off of them. The TrueHoop crew has argued that it's unlikely Donaghy's misdeeds ended there.) So why assign Crawford tonight, if not to send a clear signal to fans that their expectations aren't misplaced? This series isn't over. Tune in, there's going to be controversy.
Even if nothing shady happens (Crawford worked Game 2, which was called cleanly), the league is doing a disservice to fans who'd like to pretend the NBA isn't full-on sports entertainment at this point, and as much as it pains us to write it, a disservice to Joey Crawford by typecasting him as the go-to "home team needs a win" referee. Hours before tip-off, there should be zero attention paid to the officiating crew. It should be about the ageless Spurs dynasty looking for one last crown, or what LeBron and the Heat can muster with their backs against the wall. Instead, as the NBA knew it would be, it's all about Joey Crawford.
* Clarification added to appease moralizing basketbloggers.