Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

If This Is Rockets-Warriors, Let's Just Get It Over With As Soon As Possible

Photo: Thearon W. Henderson (Getty)

In case you ever decide to hate sports without the crutch of a rooting interest, financial, familial, or simply laundry-based, here’s your ticket. The pre–NBA Finals NBA Finals are already a drunken bar argument, and they’re only going to get worse. The Houston Rockets ... the Golden State Warriors ... Total 24/7 Whinefest! Cool.

The power snivelings of the Rockets and (to an expectedly lesser extent) Warriors about the officiating in Game 1 of their much-anticipated and likely already-ruined series. Evidently the officiating crew of Zach Zarba, Courtney Kirkland, and Josh Tiven was not up to the lofty standard of making everyone even tolerably unhappy in a series dominated by two teams that either work referees without end or wish they worked them better.

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This isn’t about the quality of officiating; take your own position on that because at this website, we want you to be happy with all the crutches at your disposal. The leagues ruined officiating long ago by “trying to make it better” and succeeded in making it immeasurably worse, and the worse it gets, the more they try to “fix it.” They have built a Möbius strip of good intentions and lousy results, or if you wish, a self-consuming ouroboros that ends with an artist’s rendering of anal-cranial inversion. The two-minute report, the apology (the hot new ploy), even the replay rules in some ways, and the essential willingness of all corners of every sport to undermine its officials have worked so well that we hate the system more than we ever have.

And fine. Hate officiating. Hate officials. It doesn’t matter. The meteor’s coming and it isn’t going to worry about landing space.

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But the incessant whining has become its own part of the game, a tradition more insidious than all the others, and in some places it has become its own postgame show. For instance, there is a cottage industry in the Bay Area of moaning that the best team with the best record of any five-year stretch ever apparently gets so little respect that it literally had no chance to win the three championships they have won in the last four years. Taken to its logical conclusion, this suggests that officials can’t even properly screw teams anymore. If they could, the Warriors would have won zero titles.

And now the Rockets think the officials are screwing them even though they have mastered the art of drawing fouls and looking aggrieved when the act isn’t wholly bought. Put these two things together, and you get the matchup we’ve all been waiting for and will in hindsight be sorry we ever got. A team that works the officials to function (Houston) against a team that works the officials when it can’t function (Golden State) is a 1-8 hockey series, as lit by The Long Night.

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Rockets-Warriors will be hard viewing because you will see taut, narrow-margined basketball (which we all like) with almost incessant barking on every possession (which becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly), and frankly, there is no escape. Neither team will ever not feel put upon and there is no incentive not to keep pushing that envelope. It makes old-timers long for the good old days when two officials with good judgment and ill temper kept games moving along, and for millennials to want a new basketball in which the players call their own fouls, with the resulting fits and stops that would make every game last five hours—two for playing, two for arguing. and one for throwing hands. And I think we all know how old-timers and millennials get along these days.

There really isn’t a quick fix for this on any end. The officials are largely younger, less experienced and worse with player relations, and there is no rational system of supply and demand save getting ones that will be even younger, less experienced and worse at all of it. This was first made clear when the NBA went to three officials decades ago, adding to their workforce 25 extra officials, all of whom were worse by definition than the 50 they already had. The idea was good, but the flaw within it rendered it bad, and so it has gone since then. The veteran whistles they didn’t like but could rely upon for a relatively square count have been replaced by younger officials they don’t like and can’t rely upon.

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The teams and players have lost patience with the pace of their learning curves and act out their displeasures with greater alacrity and vehemence. Harden, long the poster for working the system until it bleeds, now complains about fairness without a sense of irony, and the Warriors have dominated the technical foul lists for years now because they imagine a world in which the best team gets all the calls by the philosophy of the divine right of kings, I guess. There isn’t a single Warrior fan who doesn’t claim with metaphysical certitude that (a) their guys, especially Stephen Curry, don’t get the superstar treatment they deserve, and (b) respond to any rebuttal with “Yeah, well, what about Harden?”

And the league office for its part has responded with its usual studied fecklessness, throwing token fines about here and there but always avoiding the nuclear option of suspensions because, well, they don’t want to ruin the show. But the show is already on its way to being ruined. Game 1 was a hot mess throughout, with late whistles that almost seemed like Zarba, Kirkland, and Tiven were waiting to call the result rather than the act—you know, kind of NHL-ish—and their apologizing at halftime to the Rockets for not calling enough closeouts was particularly snivelly.

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In fact, here’s what apologies get you: San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic went all snotty about a possible icing call in San Jose’s 4-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Sunday evening by reminding the world about the league’s apology to the Vegas Golden Knights for the mega-power play that decided the Sharks’ last series—in San Jose’s favor. “I’ll take the high road and wait for the league’s apology tomorrow,” Vlasic said, dripping with contempt because his team didn’t play to the whistle and got burned by what proved to be Colorado’s go-ahead goal by Tyson Barrie. That nobody followed up with, “Are you actually complaining about a call that worked for you?” is a genuine amazement.

But back to the series at hand. Games 2-through-Whatever will be equally snippy and hard on the senses because neither Houston nor Golden State is incentivized to do anything other than what they do. The NBA could, I suppose, go all hologrammatic on their asses and being back spectral versions of Joey Crawford and Jake O’Donnell and Hugh Evans and Earl Strom, all respected, all feared. That particular methodology ended years ago when Rasheed Wallace first said, “Go ahead, T me up. I have more money than you have the ability to fine me.” He got 41 in 2001 alone and 304 for his career, records unlikely to be matched unless some player out there likes being suspended more than he likes playing.

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In short, like everything else these days, there is no repairing this, not in the short term. I mean, Zarba is considered one of the game’s best two or three officials (don’t worry, you hate the others on that list just as much, if not more), and he could barely wrestle this one to the ground. Houston and Golden State are simply better at making officials’ lives miserable than the officials are at doing the reverse, and that imbalance is just as bad as the old one. So enjoy Rockets-Warriors, even though in the end you can’t. Contrasting styles, brilliant system-benders, and hair-trigger outrage will make this series a nightmare to officiate, and ultimately to watch.

And other than apologizing to nobody in particular, there isn’t anything Adam Silver or his elves will, can, or even want to do about it. It is, to beat a dead horse with another dead horse, what it is.

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Ray Ratto took that utter chaos and total bitching parlay plus eight-and-a-half and cashed easily.

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