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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Nobody Can Hijack A Playoff Game Quite Like An NBA Referee Can

Illustration for article titled Nobody Can Hijack A Playoff Game Quite Like An NBA Referee Can

With 1:20 left to play in last night's Heat-Pacers game, LeBron James received the ball on the left wing, stared down his defender, and then casually dropped a 28-foot three-pointer. It was a heroic shot, the kind of shot that NBA fans live to see in the playoffs, and it set the tone for what should have been a thrilling final minute of action. The Heat were back within two points, and LeBron was feeling it. Things were about to get good, and then the referees had to go and ruin everything.

The foul call you see above—a moving screen on LeBron James—was just the final flourish that ended a dreadful night of officiating; a night that included a slew of phantom calls, endless replay reviews, and Joey Crawford executing his littlest-dictator routine to perfection.


Aside from the calls that the referees just straight up missed—like the nonexistent shot-clock violation that three referees called on a Roy Hibbert shot that clearly hit the rim, or LeBron's phantom elbow at the end of the third quarter that set up this Lance Stephenson shot—the worst calls were the ones that may have technically been correct, but were completely out of step with previously set precedents.

Take Joey Crawford charging a timeout to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra because Spoelstra stepped on the court. Fine, yes, the rules state that the coaches aren't allowed to be on the court, but guess what? Every single NBA game that was played this year featured coaches stepping out onto the court to complain about calls or yell instructions to their team, and none of those instances elicited a fuck-you timeout call like the one Crawford gave last night.

And then there's LeBron's moving screen. Yes, LeBron spread his feet out a little too wide, and he may have edged himself into Lance Stephenson just a bit, but there are scores of screens just like that one set in every NBA game, and almost all of them go uncalled (Kendrick Perkins has essentially made a career out of setting moving screens). It's not that a star like LeBron James should be given special treatment and excluded from ever fouling out of playoff game, but if the referee is going to make a game-changing call like that, it should be made on the kind of foul that doesn't go ignored in almost every other circumstance.

This is what happens when NBA referees allow their own self-importance to outweigh that of the game. They make needless statement calls to put coaches in their place, they murder the rhythm of the game by calling 55 personal fouls, and they lose sight of the fact that maybe it would be a good idea to allow the best player in the world a chance to stay on the floor for the closing moments of an intense playoff game. This is what happens when a guy who once openly talked about his anger issues is allowed to keep working in the NBA. Here's Joey Crawford to The New York Times:

One night, I hit Bill Fitch with a technical so hard, I broke my finger. My finger was all swollen. I slammed my whole hand down on it when I gave the signal. That’s why I changed my signal to a little one-finger tap — because I broke it once the old way.

Honestly, I think after that whole mess was the first time I called the sports psychologist.

The Pacers absolutely had a chance to beat the Heat fair and square last night, and LeBron James absolutely had a chance to pull out a victory with some last-minute heroics. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to see either one of those scenarios play out. Instead, the game ended with the referees engaging in another agonizingly long review of an out-of-bounds call. I suppose that's the only way the game could have ended.