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Analysis | As NBA playoffs heat up, officiating complaints overshadow the action

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This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

The surest sign that the NBA playoffs are in full swing: Complaints about the referees have reached a fever pitch.

In Memphis last week, an apoplectic Draymond Green skipped off the court after being ejected for a flagrant foul. In Milwaukee on Saturday, Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer had to be restrained by his players as he protested a no-call, while Celtics Coach Ime Udoka lashed out at the referees in his postgame news conference.

In Dallas on Sunday, Luka Doncic could only laugh and bite his tongue when he received a technical foul less than three minutes into the Mavericks’ Game 4 victory over the Phoenix Suns. In that same game, Devin Booker looked around in disbelief after receiving a technical foul for contacting an opponent’s head while following through on his jump shot. Chris Paul, meanwhile, said that the loss felt “like a blur” because he was called for six fouls in just 23 minutes, easily the fastest foul-out of his 17-year career.

“I’ve been in 500 basketball games, something like that, and I haven’t quite seen one like today,” Booker said, adding that he was choosing his words carefully so that he wouldn’t be fined by the NBA league office for criticizing the officials. “It was tough. It was a different type game. Different energy. Starting off the game with foul trouble and techs for no reason.”

What to know about the 2022 NBA playoffs

Asked if he had ever seen someone receive a technical foul while shooting a jumper, Booker replied: “I have not. That’s a good question. Have you?”

Weird and sometimes inexplicable calls garner extra attention in the playoffs, where the high-pressure atmosphere, rowdy crowds, and physical play combine with advanced gamesmanship and constant lobbying by players to make life difficult for the referees.

Last offseason, the NBA instituted new rule interpretations designed to crack down on “non-basketball moves,” which included “abrupt, overt and abnormal” movement by an offensive player designed to bait referees. Though the popular new framework led to a sharp reduction in fouls and free throw attempts during the opening months of the regular season, the numbers normalized by season’s end. The average NBA team was called for 19.6 fouls and given 21.9 free throw attempts per game this season, nearly identical to the previous year’s marks of 19.3 fouls and 21.8 free throw attempts per game. Both figures tend to increase in the playoffs, and this year is no exception: The average team has been called for 22.4 fouls — the most since 2010 — and attempted 23.5 free throws per game through Sunday.

Fouls are up, and so is the workload for the NBA’s disciplinarians. Suns Coach Monty Williams, Memphis Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid have all been fined for criticizing the officials, while Green, Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler and Denver Nuggets center DeMarcus Cousins have all drawn fines for a range of offenses, including making obscene gestures and kicking towels into the stands.

The complaints have started to snowball and occasionally overshadow the gameplay. Take the ongoing second-round series between the Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, which saw Green’s ejection from Game 1, Dillon Brooks’s ejection in Game 2 and Ja Morant’s unfortunate knee injury in Game 3. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr loudly decried Brooks’s foul by saying he had “broken the code” by injuring Gary Payton II, and the Grizzlies guard was suspended for Game 3.

A few days later, Jenkins made a point to argue that Warriors guard Jordan Poole had “yanked” Morant’s knee and “caused” his injury. In a since-deleted tweet, Morant claimed that Poole had also “broken the code,” but Memphis’s public pleas and petitioning of the league office to review the play were unsuccessful.

Milwaukee’s last-second Game 3 victory over Boston produced a similar sideshow. On the final possession, Marcus Smart was fouled by Jrue Holiday as he prepared to shoot a potential game-tying three-pointer. Smart felt that he deserved three free throws because he was in the act of shooting, but the referees awarded only two. A league office review deemed that to be the correct call, noting that the contact occurred before Smart “brought the ball upward toward the basket.”

“[The referees] didn’t give me any explanation,” Smart said during his postgame comments. “When I went to ask, they looked at me funny.”

Udoka termed that decision a “bad missed call,” but the first-year coach was also upset that the officials didn’t assess offensive fouls on late-game drives by Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like Smart, he didn’t get the answers that he wanted.

“[The referees’] explanation is if [the defenders] don’t fall down, they don’t call it,” he said. “I’ve got to teach my guys to flop a little more.”

Not to be outdone, the Bucks noted that the Celtics had shot twice as many free throws in Game 3, with General Manager Jon Horst referring to the disparity as “pretty outrageous” in an interview with The Athletic. Antetokounmpo considered commenting about the officiating, but concluded that it was best to steer clear of a potential fine because he had to “pay for diapers” for his young sons.

In one extreme case, the cat-and-mouse game between star players and officials has evolved to the point where some Suns fans are anxiously checking referee assignments before each game. When Paul celebrated his 37th birthday, Michele Roberts, the former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, noted that one of the all-star guard’s longtime antagonists would not be working Game 3 against the Mavericks that night.

“No Scott Foster tonight,” she wrote on Twitter. “That’s a cool present!”

Social media has acted like gasoline on this fire, helping to turn private grumbles into public denunciations and judgment calls into fodder for Zapruder-style analysis. At the center of this weeks-long storm, the referees have largely kept their cool. Foster, known for his rigid reputation, even indulged in a self-deprecating rap video after he and colleague Ed Malloy were caught during a timeout admitting that they were unaware of Jack Harlow’s music.

While Foster’s pop culture olive branch will do little to stem the constant criticism facing referees, ESPN analyst Tim Legler argued that the players must shoulder their portion of the blame.

“Remember the days when [basketball] was just about [going] up and down the floor with flow?” Legler, a 10-year NBA veteran who retired in 2000, wrote on Twitter. “All these theatrics and constantly trying to draw fouls destroys the fun that goes with seeing great basketball.”

Unfortunately, nostalgia works only as a temporary escape, not as a lasting solution.

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