I suppose it’s low hanging fruit to write a column criticizing NBA refs. That’s like criticizing the IRS or the DMV. Calling an NBA game correctly is as easy as catching a Cheetah with a bicycle; it’s just not possible. Not with the unbridled speed and athleticism— all inconceivable when the game was created. Today’s professional basketball is lightning fast, fiercely physical, and hard to assess in slow motion, much less full speed. So, just getting most calls right is a herculean task. It’s like keeping most of the kindergarten class quiet during story time.
This column isn’t about criticizing the refs from last night’s Game Six of the NBA Finals, where the Miami Heat used a furious push in the fleeting moments to win in overtime and force a deciding Game Seven. And just to demonstrate how dire it was for the Heat, arena staff was roping off the court with seconds remaining in regulation for the Spurs victory celebration.
But, that said, perhaps it’s worth revisiting the final moments of last night’s penultimate match to see how the art of officiating might have played a role. With under ten seconds in overtime and the Spurs down one, San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili drove the lane towards the hoop, only to have the ball swatted away by the Heat’s Ray Allen, who also got Ginobili’s arm, his chest, and pretty much anything in the general vicinity of the basketball. But that foul, at least as I saw it, went uncalled, just a tough play in the waning moments of the championship game. That gave the Heat the ball, two free throws, and a three-point lead with under two seconds remaining. San Antonio inbounded the ball to a cutting Danny Green, who threw up a three-point attempt that was blocked by Heat center Chris Bosh. Bosh also blocked most of Green’s lower body in the process. It was a clean block in the same way a five-year-old is clean after he goes swimming, like the chlorine doesn’t matter. The refs swallowed their whistles, the Heat won by three, and both teams exit stage left until Thursday night. The Heat stand rejuvenated while the Spurs watched the trophy literally appear and recede in just a matter of moments. It’s like boarding a plane to Paris, only to have pilot cancel the flight.
So this isn’t a rebuke of last night officials, who clearly saw and considered those final two San Antonio possession that helped seal their fate. In fact, they made the call that most every NBA ref would have made, assuming they ever want to work the finals again and enjoy life without full-time security. The league mandate seems to be Naismith rules for the first 47 and a half minutes, than playground for the final countdown. There’s more contact, tighter spacing, and you’re more likely to end up in the ER than the charity stripe. It’s like Cancun on Spring Break – crowded, messy, and largely unregulated. This is the expectation, especially in a huge game like this. You have to earn the winning basket, and the refs won’t decide the game.
Only problem is, with that mandate, the refs already do. Basketball fans have waited all year for just what was transpiring last night. One of the two best teams in the league with a shot to beat the other best team in the league to win it all. But we didn’t get that. Instead, we got one team unable to take a shot because the other team knew the rules didn’t apply. So we effectively lost the final ten seconds, the payoff for a year’s worth of loyalty, and instead got something that looked like a cross between lacrosse and rugby. Call me naïve, but please call the foul. And if the game gets decided on the free throw line, well, so what. It seemed to work fine in the movie Hoosiers.
Yes, I know it’s the same for both teams. And maybe the Spurs should have body checked Ray Allen at the end of regulation to keep him from launching the three that sent it to overtime in the first place. It’s not about fair. It’s about the game, which I used to think included fouls, refs, and something that looked like basketball from start to end. What we got last night, at least in the last 10 seconds, was something else.
But I’m not criticizing the refs, who called it just as the league would have wanted. Which means, in other words, they didn’t call it at all.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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