Let’s start here: LeBron James fouled Kevin Durant on a potential game-tying shot with 10 seconds left in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. (See the play at 1:25 in the above video.) In reviewing key sections of the rule book on Friday, I found this gem and thought for a second (before re-watching the foul) that perhaps the officials had gotten the call correct almost by accident:
“A defender may apply contact with a forearm to an offensive player with the ball at any time in the Lower Defensive Box.”
Wait, what? The lower defensive box is one of those bits of NBA rule minutiae that many don’t really understand. There are tiny hash marks along the baseline, 3 feet wide of the lane on either side, and the “lower defensive box” is the area in between those marks and the bottom of the dotted line/free-throw circle. Several rules, including the block/charge one, change when a player makes a catch in that area and/or starts a drive there. The lower defensive box had its 15 seconds of fame during last year’s Finals, when Tyson Chandler drew a charge on James even though the Dallas center’s right foot was in the restricted area. Miami fans screamed for the officials’ collective head, but the call was correct because the restricted-area rule does not apply to drives that begin in the lower defensive box.
Alas, the lower defensive box does not exonerate the officials for wrongly swallowing the whistles on Thursday. Durant caught the ball outside the box, and James shoved him with his right hand, and then his left, before Durant entered that space. More to the point, there is an addendum to that rule listed here (bold mine):
Inside the lower defensive box, a defender may use an extended forearm at any time to maintain his position against a player with the ball. At no time may the forearm be used to dislodge, reroute or impede the offensive player.
James plainly used left arm to impede Durant’s drive and lift. If a foul had been called in the act of shooting, Durant would have been at the free-throw line for two attempts with a chance to tie the game.
The irritating thing about this is that we have seen referees make game-changing calls in crunch time several times in the postseason — so much so, in fact, that fans have raged about the officials “deciding the game” and refusing to “let players play.” There was Kevin Garnett’s blatantly illegal screen that iced Game 2 of the Philadelphia-Boston series for the Sixers. There were the calls that fouled out James and Paul Pierce at the end of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, both of which came in scrambles for post position, before the arrival of any pass.
Those calls in a way are distinct from the James/Durant no-call on Thursday. I’m open to the idea that, barring a clear shoulder check or arm hook, the officials should “let players play” away from the ball as they make cuts or establish post position, as James and Pierce were trying to do on separate possessions. The James/Durant no-call happened on the ball, with the world watching, and it was obvious. If that is a foul in the first quarter, it should be a foul in the fourth quarter. Put simply: A call/no-call decision on the ball will always affect the course of play because the ball is the game’s central element. A call/no-call away from the ball may be inconsequential to how a possession transpires, right?
But that is what makes officiating in the NBA so hard: There is no way to tell what small action anywhere on the court is going to determine the fate of a possession. An illegal screen from Garnett (or, ahem, Kendrick Perkins) might happen away from the ball, but it has the potential to free a scorer for an open catch. All those little uncalled shoves that I’ve highlighted throughout the playoffs (including one by Perkins) can make the difference between a successful pick-and-roll and a blown-up possession. (Seriously: Watch those videos, if you haven’t; they are blatant shoves, for the most part.)
Durant’s second foul in Game 2 was a good example. He picked it up biting on a Dwyane Wade pump fake. But wait. Why was Durant guarding Wade, not his normal assignment? James Harden — author of an absolutely epic flop in the fourth quarter, by the way — was on Wade at the start of the possession. The Heat called a play designed to produce a Wade post-up on the right block via a Udonis Haslem pick for Wade on the left block. Haslem nailed Harden with a moving pick right in front of referee Tom Washington, forcing Harden to negotiate the screen with a wide route that took him nearly to the foul line. He was toast, and Durant, originally guarding Haslem, had to switch. Toss in a pump fake, and, boom, foul trouble for Durant, who went to the bench with those two fouls with 3:40 left in the first quarter.
The point is not to roast Harden, Washington or Durant. The point is that every single thing that happens on a possession matters, not just what occurs on the ball. Every movement, bump, pick or cut has the potential to determine whether a team scores or fails. Given that reality, I’m not sure it really makes sense to set up a dichotomy in the way we’d prefer referees to officiate on-ball and off-ball activity. A foul should be a foul, everywhere and all the time.
The problem is that given the complexity of the NBA rule book and 10 large bodies moving around a cramped space, it would be difficult to find a single possession in which a foul does not happen at some point. These are hard judgment calls, and anyone could go back and cherry-pick a dozen calls or non-calls (mostly non-calls) that went Oklahoma City’s way on Thursday.
The most obvious was the blocking call on Shane Battier with 3:20 remaining. That play easily could have been Durant’s sixth foul. And even that is a brutally difficult call, as I’ve written before. The rule book says the foul should be on Battier if he moves into Durant’s path after Durant “has started his upward motion with the ball in an to attempt a field-goal or pass.” Good luck judging even in slow motion if that is the case here. Battier also appears to turn his torso slightly while Durant is in the air, a small movement that a lot of people incorrectly believe to be against the rules.
Look, the no-call on Durant’s shot in the closing seconds was bad. It influenced the game. So did the blocking call on Battier. So did the illegal moving pick Haslem set on Harden. Ditto for a ton of micro-level decisions that officials have to make throughout the full 48 minutes. The officiating is never going to be perfect, and over the course of a game, the questionable calls generally even out. I’m not sure Thunder fans really want an in-depth examination of every Perkins screen, and if the league does do something about flopping, Harden is going to have to change his game considerably. There is no conspiracy against your favorite team.
If you’re going to declare that one no-call “cost Oklahoma City the game” or some such, you need to go review the rest of the game, get out your calculator and decide how many foul shots that the officials really owe each team, how many baskets each got off illegal picks, etc. This is not to excuse the refs on the James/Durant play. They blew the call. It was obvious in real time. And they might have blown it because of some belief that the players should “decide the game” — or some fear of deciding the game themselves, which is of course what referees do when they make the choice not to blow the whistle.
That’s the issue here — that a foul needs to be a foul, regardless of which player commits it and when. The NBA still has work to do there, especially on illegal screens. There will never be perfect game-to-game consistency, or even in-game consistency. But there is always room for improvement.