Referee Meltdown In Celtics-Rockets Surprisingly Has Nothing To Do With James Harden's Footwork

Illustration for article titled Referee Meltdown In Celtics-Rockets Surprisingly Has Nothing To Do With James Harden's Footwork
Photo: Eric Christian Smith (AP)

The Rockets ran away from the Celtics Thursday night, in a game that was marred in both halves by some especially spotty and sensitive refereeing by the officiating crew. The officials handed out six technical fouls—three against each team—and at least a couple of them appeared to be the result of referee Brent Barnaky needing a warm bottle and a nap.


Barnaky’s big moment came in the second quarter, with the Rockets up six but in the process of giving away an early 17-point lead. Barnaky hit Chris Paul—on the sideline in street clothes while he recovers from his latest hamstring injury—with a technical foul during a Celtics possession. Paul didn’t seem all that surprised by it, but this must be one of those things that only players and referees understand:

The second technical, called against Mike D’Antoni, came less than a minute later and from way across the court, and for some minor-seeming bitching that wasn’t even directed Barnaky’s way. D’Antoni shouted and waved at referee John Goble after watching a replay on the jumbotron, and Barnaky T’d him up from 50 feet away. The wave is often allowed even though it’s technically a no-no; I think it’s fair to suspect that D’Antoni’s tech had to do with Barnaky still smarting over the exchange with Paul and the general bitchiness of the Rockets.

But it was really the third technical that indicated a full diaper situation. Two seconds of game clock after D’Antoni’s tech, Clint Capela threw down an emphatic dunk in traffic and clutched the rim for maybe a count of one-Mississippi, and Barnaky stopped play and hit him with a tech. Hanging on the rim needlessly is another by-the-book no-no, but it is allowed several times a night across the NBA, and in instances far more egregious than Capela’s. Here’s the entire three-technical sequence, featuring a baffled Chris Webber on the call:

D’Antoni reportedly confronted Barnaky after halftime, and—in what I am sure is a total coincidence—calls seemed to shift the other way in the second half. Boston outproduced Houston from the line 14 attempts to five in the first half; in the second half the Rockets got to the line for an eye-opening 30 free throws, including 17 by James Harden alone. Boston was also hit with three technical fouls in the second half, although to the officials’ credit the whistles seemed well-earned, certainly compared to the three Houston techs in the first half.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the state of NBA officiating, which sucks an incredible amount of ass and seems to get worse every year. But mostly NBA officiating sucks in ways that are different from what happened Thursday night: Rules like the travel and the charge and continuation and the dreaded clear-path have been completely divorced from the basketball scenarios that would make them useful, to the point where all of the best and the most annoying players have incorporated into their games whole reflexes that are designed to do nothing more than exploit the goofy, lazy, game-breaking way these rules are now applied. NBA officiating invites and rewards if not a ref-centric way of playing then certainly a ref-dependent one, and it sucks and I hate it.

And there’s bound to be plenty of that crapola in any Rockets game, because James Harden is perhaps the world’s foremost practitioner of the dark arts. So it registers as a bit of an upset that in a game where Harden took another 17 free throws, it was an old-fashioned Joey Crawford-esque temper tantrum that most thoroughly embarrassed the officials. Props to Brent Barnaky for jumping into the ranks of referees who are now widely known to basketball fans, by name. There are better ways of getting there, but none quicker.

Staff Writer, Deadspin