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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Rockets Are Only Embarrassing Themselves

Illustration for article titled The Rockets Are Only Embarrassing Themselves
Photo: Streeter Lecka (Getty)

It’s not enough that the Houston Rockets have to whine that they lost Game 1 because the refs didn’t take their signature gaming of the “landing zone” rule as seriously as usual. They elected to follow that snit with what is perhaps the most pathetically lame sports media leak of all time, as ESPN miraculously got its hands on a report made by the Rockets that details 81 questionable calls in Game 7 of last year’s Western Conference Finals. That absurdly comprehensive list of grievances, which was initially made possible because the NBA gave Houston a full-game version of their typical last-two-minutes referee report, is accompanied by a memo that the Rockets reportedly never sent, because they conveyed its message during in-person meetings with the league.


I don’t know who delivered the Rockets’ message, but if his in-person complaints sounded anything like the memo, I hope someone from the NBA took him into a private corporate bathroom and gave him the swirlie of a lifetime. The memo’s smug conclusion, clearly based in Logic and Facts, frames the failure of the Rockets to hit any of 27 straight threes, and the failure of Chris Paul’s hamstring to stay healthy, as less significant than those 81 disputed calls. It is, the memo insists, a league-wide crisis of the highest importance.

“Referees likely changed the eventual NBA champion,” the memo says. “There can be no worse result for the NBA.”

Elsewhere, the Rockets patronize the referees by arguing that many of them simply aren’t sophisticated or advanced enough to call a Houston Rockets basketball game in the way it needs—nay, deserves—to be called. It’s the veteran referees, they say, who “exhibit the most bias against our players.” They add:

“The reason we are in this situation,” the memo says, “is the efforts made to improve the referees have been too slow, not extensive enough, and have been held back by entrenched referees who are resisting reform.”

The dubious and annoying reasoning that Houston gives for these condescending conclusions is grounded in the team assigning a point value for every “potential infraction” the league identified. By heroically stretching the meaning of the word “potential,” the Rockets awarded themselves an additional 18.6 points in their 101-92 loss. Like so:

With about 10:40 left in the third quarter, Eric Gordon lost the ball when he dribbled it off Curry’s foot. In the game, it was a live-ball turnover. The league deemed it a “potential infraction” kicked ball on Curry, according to Houston’s analysis—meaning it might have been a kick, but there is no way to tell conclusively. The Rockets counted that as 1.1 points lost, using what appears to have been an estimate of their average half-court points per possession, according to league sources. (They used that 1.1 figure for all such plays that ended Houston possessions.)


That is somehow not even the most exhausting attempt at a correction:

With about 8:55 left in the third quarter, Kevon Looney rebounded a Klay Thompson missed 3-pointer. As Looney went up for a putback, Gordon made some contact with him that went uncalled. Looney missed. Looney jumped to try to tip the ball in, and Harden leaped to block Looney’s shot—making some contact with Looney’s arm and upper body. Again, no call was made. The loose ball ricocheted to Curry, who passed it to Kevin Durant for an open 3-pointer which went in.

The league cited Harden’s attempted block as a potential infraction—a possible foul, but one the league could not say conclusively was a foul even upon review, according to Houston’s analysis. Houston concluded that the non-call cost them two points.


The Rockets got those two points, in their estimation, because Durant wouldn’t have had a chance at the three, and because Looney is a 61 percent free throw shooter. Oh, and obviously because taking the phrase “potential infraction” in the worst possible faith helps the memo make they case that the Rockets were robbed by the fraudulent Warriors and the brainless officials. This is the lawyer’s equivalent of flopping, basically.

It’s all pretty embarrassing, but there’s a certain cynical strategy behind it. Houston clearly decided after that Game 1 loss that its best move would be to dredge up petty gripes from last year and then feed them to both The Athletic and ESPN in the hope that this would put intense pressure on the NBA to not make it look they’re boning Houston out of the postseason one call at a time. In that way, it’s something like the NBA equivalent of a political campaign complaining about biased media coverage. But in another, more specific way, it’s a basketball team making itself look silly and sad by marshaling all available shreds of evidence to the effect that they are in fact actually smarter and handsomer and more talented than the Warriors. Thankfully the NBA does not make a habit of overturning playoff outcomes on appeal. I hope Golden State sweeps these clowns back into the toilet.