To see why refereeing has become such a hot topic in this Golden State-Houston series, you must first understand this: James Harden may be losing one of his superpowers.
Harden’s bread-and-butter is drawing a foul on 3-pointers, one of the most valuable plays in basketball for a variety of reasons. At a minimum, it pushes a defender closer to fouling out. Secondly, a close-out defender may not contest as aggressively later if a foul is called earlier in the game. But by far and away the most important thing -- particularly in the case of an 86-percent free-throw shooter like Harden -- is that one whistle can almost guarantee three points.
In the case of Sunday’s no-call on Draymond Green contesting Harden at the end of Game 1, which the league deemed to be the correct non-whistle, those three points would have been critical. It would have tied the game and potentially sent it into overtime. That call never came, and now the Rockets are down 0-1 in the series, with both teams airing out grievances in the press about the Harden issue.
This is the game within the game. If Harden can draw that whistle regularly in the series, it can change the entire landscape of the 2019 playoffs. The volume of complaints may only get louder.
The reigning MVP has the fouled 3-pointer down to a science. With a devastating stepback that causes defenders to lunge toward him, Harden tallied a league-leading 95 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season (75 three-shot fouls and 20 and-ones on 3-pointers), or 1.22 per game. You might expect that Harden would get more of these calls in the postseason because teams are hell-bent on not letting him get a clean look and illegal contact will ensue. But in this postseason, he has gotten only six such calls in six games, a decline of 18 percent. In the postgame presser after Game 1, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said that referees confessed at halftime they missed four of them. That’s 12 free-throw attempts in the first-half alone.
It wasn’t just a Game 1 issue. In fact, in each of the last three postseasons, Harden hasn’t gotten the foul call on 3-pointers as much. Last year, Harden averaged 0.97 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season, and it dropped to 0.76 in the postseason, a drop of 22 percent. In 2016-17, it dropped from 1.53 to 1.18 per game, a decline of 23 percent.
You might say that’s not significant, but in the playoffs, one missed fouled 3-point call can change a game, or tilt a series. It can also drag down Harden’s 3-point shooting percentage, which is now sitting at 32.9 percent, marking the fourth-straight postseason he has shot below average from downtown.
There’s a fatigue element as well. Those falls are tiring. The more that Harden tumbles to the ground and scrambles to his feet, the less fuel he’ll have in the tank for critical late possessions. When he gets a call and a trio of free throws, those basketball burpees are worth it. When he doesn’t, he’s a liability on the floor, especially in transition with a Golden State team looking to push the ball.
For referees, this isn’t an easy call to make. But as one former NBA official tells NBCSports.com, this could get ugly soon.
One former referee’s viewpoint
Three-pointers are more prevalent than ever, and are being attempted deeper than ever. Pace has ramped up to levels unseen since the 1980s. Geometrically, referees have to keep track of a larger expanse of action than ever before. Not only that, the federal ban on sports gambling has been lifted, bringing referees and the integrity of the game further into the headlines.
Game 1 was particularly volatile. There were four technicals and an automatic ejection when Chris Paul bumped into official Josh Tiven in the closing seconds, receiving his second technical foul of the game. It was a contentious game that was marked by bizarre late whistles.
“This stuff is hard,” said the former NBA official. “What the referees have to do is hard. They’re under a lot of scrutiny, more so than ever before. Look, when I refereed, the second round of the playoffs didn’t get any attention. This year, the first round got attention.”
The concern isn’t just about fairness. With emotions running high and Harden emphasizing the integrity of the whistle, this could veer into dangerous territory.
“The problem you run into now: As soon as Steph (Curry) goes up (for a shot), they’ll step under him,” the longtime official said over the phone. “Somebody’s going to do it, just to prove a point.”
Which presents another problem.
“The referee is going to call (the foul), and the Rockets will say, ‘See, we’re getting screwed.’”
Making this even more complicated is that Curry and Klay Thompson are nursing sore ankles from their previous series against the L.A. Clippers. One turn of the ankle could be a series-ender. To be clear, there’s no indication from the Rockets that they will retaliate or start to play dirty to send a message. But there’s gamesmanship at play, too.
Like a savvy lawyer, Harden raised the precedent of Kawhi Leonard getting injured in the 2017 playoffs when former Golden State center Zaza Pachulia impeded on Leonard’s landing space and Leonard missed the rest of the series with an injured ankle.
“We all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi,” Harden said after Game 1. “That can change an entire series. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called, and we’ll live with the results.”
Sunday was a challenging afternoon for 16-year veteran official Zach Zarba, who, according to multiple sources and confirmed by RefAnalytics.com tracking, was making his conference semifinals debut as the crew chief. Zarba has officiated in the NBA Finals and has served as the crew chief in the first round, but Sunday’s highly-anticipated Game 1 of the Western Conference finals rematch was his first in the second round.
“These are huge games,” said the former NBA official, noting Zarba’s debut.
That’s notable for another reason. According to an ESPN report on Monday, the Rockets produced an audit of missed calls in the 2018 Western Conference Finals last year and claimed to the league that the officiating cost them the title (The NBA disagreed with the Rockets’ methodology.). In Houston’s estimation, one of the factors behind that perceived bias, is that veteran officials “exhibit the most bias against our players,” and Houston argued that referee experience level should not be considered for postseason assignments.
However, that these audits came to light after Game 1 is an interesting turn of events considering the relative inexperience of Sunday’s crew. Beyond Zarba, Tiven is in his ninth season as an NBA ref (sixth postseason) and Courtney Kirkland is in his 19th season, but just his ninth in the playoffs. If the Rockets were worried about too much experience clouding judgment, this would be an acceptable crew.
It’s not uncommon for referees to review calls at halftime and admit they missed one or two. But the former NBA official found it surprising that a referee would fess up to four mistaken calls on the same type of play, which is what D’Antoni asserted over the weekend. It’s not a matter of honesty -- it could be a matter of time. A referee crew only has about 10 minutes to debrief, review film and prep for the rest of the game during halftime. When asked about D’Antoni’s claim, a spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association declined comment on Tuesday.
“That is an issue because referees can’t go public,” the former NBA official said. “It’s not unusual to say, ‘Yeah, we looked at the play, and we kicked it.’ To say, ‘We looked at all four, and we missed them all’ -- that seems like a lot.”
In the age of analytics and greater transparency around officiating, referee assignments are sure to be talking points for the foreseeable future. For instance, the crew chief for Game 2 will not be making his debut like Zarba. Instead, it’ll be Scott Foster, who is one of the most senior officials on staff. Referee assignments for Games 1-4 are decided before the series, but the league placed Foster on this series, even though he carries a long history with the Rockets.
In February, both Harden and Chris Paul were tossed with six fouls each, prompting Harden to tell reporters, “For sure, it’s personal. I don’t think (Foster) should be able to officiate our games anymore, honestly.”
It was the only time that Paul has fouled out in a game this season. In 2018, after Foster gave Paul a technical foul, the point guard told the media, “That’s history there. He the man. That’s who they pay to see.”
Paul isn’t alone in his issues with Foster. In 2016, Foster was voted the NBA’s worst referee in a Los Angeles Times survey of players and coaches. After Paul’s disqualification in February, Paul took umbrage with Foster again, telling reporters, “I don’t know what else to do.”
The Rockets, who are steeped in numbers as much as any team, are surely aware of this Foster-related fact: Harden has fouled out just four times in 265 games over the past three seasons including the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking. Three of those games were officiated by Foster.
Does Harden have a referee problem?
Harden is so talented that he doesn’t need a favorable whistle to play at a high level. But this postseason, he hasn’t lived at the free throw line like he normally does. He’s been held to five or fewer free throws in three of his six games, winning all three with a scoring average of 29 points in those contests.
Part of that is how Utah guarded him aggressively at his left hip early in the first round. With 14 free throws in Game 1, Harden will have to continue trying to live at the charity stripe in this series; the Warriors’ offense won’t be as forgiving as Utah’s if Harden is on the ground trying to get a call.
Whether he can continue getting the whistle, especially on three-shot fouls, is something to monitor in Game 2. Harden’s free-throw attempts per game has fallen in each of the last four postseasons. None of those has resulted in a finals appearance. Maybe the noise surrounding this series will change his fortune.