The Thunder accomplished a rare feat in their 118-110 loss to the Clippers on Friday that they probably won’t think fondly of when the season finally ends for them. For the second time in the past 10 seasons, three starters fouled out before the end of regulation: Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams, per ESPN. The other time it happened was with the Washington Wizards back in 2014, so not the best company to keep.
Because something like this rarely ever happens, Thunder players were understandably upset, with Paul George being the most critical of the officiating his team has had to deal with recently.
“It’s just bad officiating,” George said. “I’m sorry, just bad officiating. We don’t get a fair whistle. We haven’t gotten a fair whistle all year. ... Somebody’s got to look into this. It’s getting out of hand, where we somehow just walk teams to the line. And there’s nobody that gets more contact. If I don’t speak for myself, I speak for Russ. There’s nobody that gets more contact than Russ going to the basket. And it’s just crazy.
“I don’t understand it. It’s a piece of shit being on that floor. We giving everything we got. We’re playing hard. We’re getting grabbed. We’re getting scratched, clawed, held, shoved. And there’s nothing for it. The officials just get to walk out, and there’s nothing that penalizes them for not officiating the game the right way.”
Normally, calls for a league-wide overhaul of officiating practices are often a result of frustration with one or two instances at the end of a game, or a match up against James Harden. However, George has a legitimate gripe here. Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams each went to the line 15 times and the Clippers had 20 more free throw attempts than the Thunder had (46-26 split). George and Westbrook even joined Phoenix’s Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire (2007) and the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (1999) as the third All-Star duo to foul out in regulation over the last 20 seasons. Things weren’t much better just one game prior from a free-throw shooting perspective, as the Thunder had 15 fewer attempts than the Trail Blazers in their overtime win.
Still, there appears to be a bit of recency bias playing in for George here. While the discrepancy between the Thunder’s and Clippers’ free throw attempts is noteworthy, the Clippers lead the league in points earned from the line (percentage-wise) and free throw attempt rate. This is just something that happens when teams play the Clippers. It’s also worth pointing out that the Thunder have the seventh-highest free throw rate this season—though they unfortunately don’t take advantage of those opportunities as they have the third-worst team free throw percentage in the league.
But if you combine George’s comment with what Westbrook had to say after the game, you get closer to a reasonable point.
“To play without fouling is tough sometimes,” said Westbrook, who had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. “A lot of those guys like play to get fouled. That is how the game is nowadays. It’s not really basketball. You’re just playing to get fouled to see what happens.”
It makes sense to get frustrated when you see players getting whistles blown in their favor after exaggerating contact—which admittedly George and Westbrook have both done in their careers—when you think you’re not getting enough fouls despite your playing style being more physical and heavy on the contact. Just in general it seems that officials are doing more to reward cynical playing behavior. Referees are tasked with making split-second interpretations of a heavy rule book and players who excel at manipulating them into thinking an infraction was committed against them aren’t making things any easier. The role typically associated with college players of the guy who knows how to take a charge has been brought into the NBA, just in a more bastardized way that requires more acting abilities than defensive positioning skills. It’s a problem that will only get worse if some serious overhauling isn’t done.
This is an important decision that the NBA will have to come to sooner rather than later. We know the solution won’t come immediately, but that’s only because the league has to assess fines to George and Westbrook first.