In an ironic twist, it was James Harden that spoke up about officiating problems in Game 1 of the Rockets-Warriors series. He told reporters after the game that “he just wants a fair chance” and that he’s willing to live with whatever results come from the game as long as it’s called “the way it’s supposed to be called.” It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of an individual known for making defenders’ lives hell not by means of scoring ability, but with his ability to draw fouls easily through flops and overdramatized responses to contact. Still, he might have a point given how things went.
The officials in Sunday’s game established what kind of fouls they were going to call early, and allowed dangerously tight defense against Harden and Chris Paul slide without issue. More specifically, the officials allowed close-outs where a defender steps under a shooter’s landing zone—a foul that has been upgraded to a flagrant in today’s NBA—to go unpunished.
Eventually, even the officials themselves started to believe that what they were allowing was getting a bit excessive. Around halftime, according to coach Mike D’Antoni after the game, they approached the Rockets and apologized for those missed calls. While the coach never spelled it out, the implied underlying message of that apology was surely interpreted to be that those kinds of close-outs would be called more correctly in the second half. It’s something that would explain the anger that D’Antoni and Chris Paul expressed after Shaun Livingston broke into Paul’s landing zone during a three-point attempt in the third quarter. Both Paul and D’Antoni were assessed technical fouls for their transgressions.
Paul did have a legitimate gripe there. The replays showed that if Chris Paul had gone through a natural shooting motion, his foot would have likely landed on Livingston and he could have rolled his ankle. His ultimate mistake was trying to oversell a foul that was actually happening, an act that was a response to all the missed calls in the previous half.
But even if the officials hadn’t spoken to Houston at halftime, those two would have had a similar reaction to the missed call anyways. Since Zaza Pachulia injured Kawhi Leonard on a close-out a couple seasons back, the league has been refocusing to try and get that defensive move out of the game. Unlike a missed push-off or charge, close-outs have been officiated much more closely than other fouls in recent years so the way officials handled it today felt like a significant departure from the norm. There’s also the fact that interfering with a shooter’s landing zone is much more dangerous than most foul calls a ref could miss—again, see Pachulia essentially ending Leonard’s career with San Antonio.
Shortly after Paul’s non-call, the realization of past mistakes hit the officials hard (again) and they suddenly remembered how things had been called all year. Unfortunately, they started trying to overcorrect their mistakes and ended up calling more soft fouls against the Warriors which not only slowed the pace of the game, but also allowed Houston to remain competitive even as Kevin Durant was tearing up the Rockets’ defense. It was a trend that lasted for almost the entire rest of the game.
When Houston’s final play of the game began, it was Paul and Harden who had sudden memory loss of how games tend to be called. While shooting a potential game-tying three, Harden tried to get a close-out foul called against Draymond Green and jumped forward about four feet so that he would land against his defender. He unsurprisingly missed his shot, and didn’t get the call, but Paul got the rebound. Paul then tried to pass the ball to Eric Gordon, who was out of bounds, and ended up turning the ball over. The point guard believed he was hit during the pass, complained to the official and then was ejected after getting his second technical.
It should be noted that the blame for the craziness of the final possession should be placed fully on the Rockets. Harden tried too hard to get fouled, Paul let his temper get the best of him and even Gordon failed with his terrible spacial awareness. But it’s a type of confusion and stupidity that only happens if a team starts to believe that the officials are finally calling things a certain way. Houston wasn’t guaranteed a win had the officials been more consistent in their bad calls, but the team would have at least looked less silly in the final seconds of regulation if the officials were a bit better. It’s probably not what Harden meant when he asked for things to be called more fairly, but it’s certainly a lot better than what happened so maybe he’ll accept that kind of officiating in Game 2.