May 20, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; NBA referee Joey Crawford gestures during game four of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
The Heat and Celtics played an instant classic in Game 4 on Sunday, but it's hard to avoid thinking about the refs' role. That's the eternal problem for the NBA.
If Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals was to be considered the Rajon Rondo Game, then Game 4 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics ought to be known as the Joey Crawford, Greg Willard and Bill Kennedy Game. The late-game shakedown featured some great shots (like a game-tying LeBron James three-pointer) and just-missed plays, but the overriding narrative revolved around what the officials were and were not calling.
LeBron, who hadn't fouled out of any game since 2008, picked up his fifth foul midway through the fourth on a regrettable double foul. (All double fouls are regrettable, both personal and technical. It's a cop-out 95 percent of the time. This particular double foul probably should have just gone against LeBron, not he and Kevin Garnett.) Moments earlier, LeBron's fourth came on a charge call.
In the final six minutes of regulation, the refs called four offensive fouls (including half of that double foul). These are among the most contentious calls in basketball ... and the referees handed out as many in crunch time as you're likely to see over the course of most entire games.
Then in overtime came the moments that really made this the night a ref spotlight: LeBron and Paul Pierce each fouled out on offensive fouls. James' came when Mickael Pietrus pulled the chair, and Pierce's was on a charge.
One's initial thought is that it's rare for superstars to foul out of playoff games, and that initial thought generally holds true. Michael Jordan fouled out of three playoff games, but none after 1989. The second of the three came during the playoffs of his first MVP season ('88). He played 179 total playoff games over his career; LeBron has now played 107.
Big men, of course, are more susceptible to whistles: Tim Duncan has five playoff foul-outs, and Shaq had a whopping 11. As such, it's not a total shock to see LeBron and Pierce go out in an overtime game. Even the immortal are subject to our laws, and our laws say that flagrant contact under the rim -- each player essentially dared the refs to make the call -- gets a whistle.
But it's so simple to second guess the refs that the NBA really can't win here. If fouls aren't called on superstars, then fans and analysts bemoan "superstar calls" and tiered rules for different levels of player. If fouls are called on superstars, fans and analysts complain about referees putting themselves in the spotlight and taking over games. It's a lose-lose for the league, and every day in which we're talking about referees is generally a bad day for the NBA.
What can they do? Always and forever, quality control has to be the top priority of the league when it comes to its refs. Joe Crawford seems like a great guy, and is usually a fantastic ref. But he also seems to relish the spotlight. (See Tim Duncan's laugh ejection.) This is a problem in the playoffs, when quick tweeters are all to ready to pin a bad call on Crawford. (Sometimes, Crawford makes it way too easy.) Here's the thing: Fans shouldn't know a danged thing about Crawford. Refs at their best are invisible until things begin to get out of hand. Crawford regulates with such a heavy hand that ... things get out of hand, but in different ways. Like, in LeBron and Paul Pierce fouling out ways.
Again, there's little the NBA can do. You're not going to get rid of Crawford, because for all of his faults, he's still one of the NBA's best. All the league can do is monitor ref performance, monitor trends of play and adjust the levers accordingly ... which is exactly what the league does. The one recommendation I'd have to take the air out of some of the complaints from fans and analysts to be more transparent about good calls and bad calls. Assign one of the league's ref program managers to break down calls on NBA.com more frequently instead of only in extraordinary cases, and admit when the refs judge the wrong way on close calls. We all know refs are human and that officiating a game as fast-paced as pro basketball is darn near impossible. But this nation is all about transparency, and a little can go a long way.
Outside of that, there's little the league can do to end the catcalls or divert attention away from the men (and women) in stripes. So long as players careen into each other in critical moments, the refs will be in the spotlight. One just hopes that in the case of officials like Crawford the attention is incidental and not sought.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.