Column: Wild and Wylie
For a basketball player, consistency is putting out the same quality of performance every time he steps on the court. Consistency is what separates Derrick Rose, who played at an MVP level for two weeks in 2018, from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who displayed an MVP-level performance for the entire 2018-19 season.
For a basketball referee, consistency means calling fouls fairly and equally. A referee must not call fouls against one team that they would not call against the other. But that also means calling the same types of fouls in the playoffs that they did all year in the regular season.
A consistent referee will go unnoticed the entirety of a game. They will call the game correctly, giving fans and players little reason to complain about the officiating. But referees damage the game when they become the center of attention and are perceived to have decided the outcome.
On Sunday, March 28, in a highly anticipated playoff rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, three former and current MVP winners and four other All-Stars battled back and forth in the Warriors eventual 104-100 victory. But rather than talking about the two players who scored 35 points each or the clutch 3-pointer by Steph Curry, the ire of players and pundits turned on the referees and their no-calls on several controversial plays.
Since joining the Rockets, James Harden has perfected the art of scoring in the paint and from the 3-point line, and he possesses a unique ability to draw fouls and convert those fouls into free-throws. In the regular season, James Harden drew fouls on 95 3-point attempts, giving himself 285 chances at the free-throw line. He achieves this by throwing his body forward while shooting and kicking his leg up toward an oncoming defender.
The NBA rulebook states: “A player is never permitted to move into the path of an opponent after the opponent has started his upward jumping motion.” By jumping farther out horizontally and kicking his leg up, Harden has created a jump shot that enlarges his shooting path and makes it harder for defenders to contest his shots without fouling.
Regardless of whether his shooting method is a natural method or one designed to manufacture fouls, the fact remains that all regular season referees called those fouls. They gave him those free throws. And he converted those free throws at an 87.9 percent rate.
In Game 1 against the Warriors, several Warriors defenders invaded Harden’s landing space on 3-point attempts and appeared to foul him. Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala each took turns guarding Harden, and they all made contact with his body and legs while contesting his shots. In most cases, no fouls were called.
“Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it,” Harden said after the game. “And I’ll live with the results.”
What Harden is asking for, and what every NBA player has a right to ask, is that officials call the same types of fouls that they called all season before the playoffs. If a defender brushing into Harden’s body or making contact with his legs is a foul in November and December, it has to be a foul in April and May. These types of calls have helped Harden average 36.1 points per game this season and helped his team earn a 53-29 record for the season.
It is certainly true that defensive intensity increases in the postseason. Scores are usually lower and physicality increases. But calling 3-point fouls for landing in a shooter’s space helped turn Harden into the most prolific offensive force in the NBA this season, and officials are crippling the Rockets chance of success by changing the way they call those fouls in the playoffs.
On-court performances in the NBA playoffs should determine the best teams and players in the world. Referees exist to manage games, not determine outcomes. When the league demands consistency from officials, the focus will once again turn back to the world-class players battling for a championship. After all, the players are the ones fans are paying to see in the first place.