If you cover sports for a living, you are generally disinclined to write about umpires and referees, particularly in the NBA, where officials blow the whistle, (or elect not to blow it, a decision in itself), hundreds of times over a 48-minute game. Good refs and bad refs are determined over time (just like good players and bad players, and, for that matter, good writers and bad writers), not in the cauldron of a few overheated moments. Fixating on calls is generally the province of full-throated fans at the arena, frustrated television-watchers at home, and, in this day and age, irate chat-roomers seething at their laptops.
But as we head for Thursday night's Lakers-Celtics 4 at TD Garden, it is a fair question to pose: What exactly is going on with the refs in this championship series? What's being called and what isn't? I have no doubt that many fans -- even those who look at the game objectively and not from the sole perspective of "my team is getting screwed" --are asking the same thing.
At least one starter from each team has gotten into early foul trouble in every game, which has had a severe impact on player rotations. A whistle blows far away from the action, suddenly and mysteriously, even as mayhem is going on around the ball. A dribbler drives, a defender steps in, both fall, and one or the other is charged with a foul, even though, if a thousand refs were polled, 500 would call "block" and 500 would call "charge." Calls are reviewed, as three of them were in Tuesday's Game 3, and all three were overturned.
"Going by the percentages of the replays, we should replay a lot of them," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after the game, walking the tightrope between casual observation and fineable commentary, "because every one of them were turned the other way. Maybe we need to use the replay more on a lot of our calls."
(Man, I hope that doesn't happen, lest we turn what has become a three-hour telecast into a four-hour telecast.)
Understand that I don't accept the blanket observation that NBA refereeing is poor. It's too simple, too pat, and ignores the fact that the league office takes extensive pains to review officials' calls (too extensive, if you ask most refs) and makes sure that the most highly rated refs are on the floor during the postseason. But the size of the players and the physicality of the game are conspiring to make this an almost impossible game to adjudicate with any consistency.
And it won't get any easier in Game 4; Boston, in particular, will come out physical, and the refs will want to keep it in line. Celtics center KendrickPerkins, who looks like the Angriest Man Alive even when things are going well, will be pushing and shoving with his Lakers counterpart, Andrew Bynum, in what has become something of a water-buffalo ballet in the low post. Celtics guard Ray Allen, embarrassed by his 0-for-13 shooting in Game 3 (Boston Herald front-page headline on Wednesday: RAY OF NOPE!), will want to impose his defensive will on Kobe Bryant, for whom he has no love in any circumstance, least of all a crucial Game 4. Kevin Garnett, the lone Boston starter who played with consistency in Game 3, will have seen dozens of replays of Derek Fisher going by him on the 94-foot foray that clinched the game, and will want to put that memory to rest by clamping down on PauGasol, who has been just good enough in this series to have made a difference.
But what we have here is a classic conundrum. The game is too physical, too grabby, too much a series of individual wrestling matches as players battle to get open. Yet there are also too many whistles, too many stoppages of play designed to cut down on that physicality. It's for greater minds than mine to study in the offseason, but I offer a few humble suggestions:
• Make most block-charge situations a no-call. Most of them are impossible to get right anyway. If a dribbler wants to take it pell-mell to the hoop, and a defender wants to plant himself in that path, that is a mutual decision. The refs don't have to get involved except in obvious cases.
• Enforce some kind of penalty for flopping. The only time a guy goes down like he's been shot out of a cannon is when he's actually been shot out of a cannon. (I've seen that; it happens in the circus once in a while.) There's enough actual contact without rewarding bogus contact.
• Reduce off-the-ball grabbing. And make it a point of emphasis from the beginning of the season to do so. Players, like chickens, need to roam free.
• Give some of those slow-footed centers a break. Let them bang into a screener in those high pick-and-roll situations. That's exactly why the screen is being set -- to draw contact. The big men will get into enough foul trouble under the basket.
• Enforce some kind of replay-challenge limit, as in the NFL. And if there's a limit, there might as well be expansion beyond the mere possession question. On the final reversed call in Game 3, for example, the Celtics got the ball back when it was determined that a deflection went off of the Lakers' Lamar Odom. But that happened only because he was fouled by Celtics' guard Rajon Rondo, and a review can't lead to a called foul.
• And really, really think about taking commentator Jeff Van Gundy's suggestion seriously about eliminating the six-foul rule. I waded into these waters a while back and was proclaimed a lunatic, which is probably what will happen again. But think about it: Though players have gotten much bigger and stronger, they are performing on the same size court as their brethren from years ago. And they are being watched closer than ever by three refs, not two as in yesteryear, along with all those eyes in the sky in the front office.
Yet, six fouls is still the limit. Why? Is six a magic number? Should the Celtics really have had to sit Paul Pierce after two first-quarter fouls, as was the case in Game 3? What if one of the calls wasn't a good one, which frequently happens in a game that's so difficult to officiate? Now there's a superstar on the bench for essentially committing one foul.
There were some great basketball on Tuesday. Garnett's exquisite low-post footwork that helped him score 25 points. Bryant's softly released left-hander that floated over Garnett's outstretched hand in the second quarter. Fisher's gutty play down the stretch, which left him emotionally spent, as real a reaction as I've seen from an athlete in a long time. And you know what? There were some great calls, too, such as the first-quarter foul on the Lakers' Ron Artest when he nonsensically stuck out his leg to trip Allen, earning Artest an early seat on the bench.
But too many fans out there were, too often, wondering what was called and what wasn't.
During a fourth-quarter timeout, Boston's Rasheed Wallace engaged in a spirited dialectic with referee Danny Crawford, as is Rasheed's wont. (It was, by the way, among Wallace's most energetic moments -- he shot 1-of-5 in 18 minutes.) Though I don't recommend 'Sheed for the job, such discussions are needed in the offseason, not because the refs don't know what they're doing but because the game has become extremely hard to manage.