Game 2 will mark the first time Crawford, 61, has officiated a Finals game involving the Spurs since he was suspended by the NBA in 2o07 following a controversial and unusual ejection of Tim Duncan. An NBA referee since 1977, Crawford ejected Duncan from the third quarter of an April 15 game against the Mavericks for laughing while seated on the Spurs bench.
The NBA cited "improper conduct and a lack of professionalism" in suspending Crawford for the remainder of the 2006-07 season and the entire 2007 playoffs. Crawford sat at home as the Spurs went on to win their most recent title, the fourth of Duncan's career, but he eventually had his suspension lifted prior to the start of the 2007-08 season.
"Although Joey is consistently rated as one of our top referees, he must be held accountable for his actions on the floor," commissioner David Stern said in a statement at the time. "We will have further discussions with him following the season to be sure he understands his responsibilities."
The Associated Press and ESPN.com reported Duncan, who was fined $25,000 for "verbal abuse of an official" for his role in the incident, told reporters in 2007 Crawford had a "personal vendetta" against him and that Crawford asked him if he wanted to fight before the ejection.
“He looked at me and said, ’Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?”’ Duncan said. “If he wants to fight, we can fight. I don’t have any problem with him, but we can do it if he wants to. I have no reason why in the middle of a game he would yell at me, ’Do you want to fight?”’
ESPN.com reported at the time Crawford maintained after the incident that Duncan deserved the two technicals he was given. The veteran referee told the New York Times years later the incident "changed [his] life" because it forced him to better manage his anger issues and led him to increase his visits to a sports psychologist.
In November 2012, Grantland.com cited an academic study that concluded Crawford's presence officiating Spurs games has had no impact on the team's performance over the last decade.
[Ryan Rodenberg, a sports economist at Florida State University] concludes there is no evidence that Crawford’s officiating had any real negative impact on the Spurs from the 2001-02 season through last season.
Rodenberg looked at the expected scoring margins and win-loss outcomes of every San Antonio game in that span and measured whether each individual official who refereed a Spurs game during that time — 95 refs in total — had any noticeable impact in either direction. ... Joey Crawford is right in that meaty middle section, with all the other officials whose work had no discernible impact on San Antonio’s performance.
“Duncan made it seem like there was some systematic bias against him,” Rodenberg says. “But there wasn’t at all.”
Still, tensions between the Spurs, the team's fans and Crawford continue. Those feelings came up again when Crawford happened to be one of the officials during San Antonio's season-ending loss to Oklahoma City during the 2012 Western Conference finals.
What's more, a Halloween party photograph surfaced back in December that captured Duncan and teammate Tony Parker pointing fake guns at a man dressed up as Crawford with a hangman’s noose nearby. The Spurs reportedly denied requests for comment on the picture.
Crawford is one of the league's most experienced and recognizable referees. His name is often a trending topic on Twitter when he works games and he made headlines in November for high-stepping from the baseline to the three-point line to make a call during a game between the Lakers and Pacers.
The suspension that followed Crawford's incident with Duncan was actually the second of his career, as he was previously reprimanded by the NBA after pleading guilty to tax fraud in 1998. That suspension, like the Duncan suspension, was lifted in fairly short order.
The Spurs hold a 1-0 series lead in the Finals. No team has ever dropped the first two games at home and come back to win a Finals series. Dwyane Wade said Saturday that he understands the stakes at play in Game 2, calling the contest a "must-win" for Miami.