6 years ago today, one of the great NBA Officiating Travesties (that didn’t involve Dick Bavetta or Bob Delaney) took place as the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Utah Jazz 91-79 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the 2007 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs would win Game 5 at home and eventually sweep an over-matched Cavaliers team that surely would have lost to any of the top five Western Conference teams in the NBA Finals.
Spurs at Jazz – 2007 Conference Finals – Game 4 Officiating Highlights
There is no question the officiating was one-sided and ultimately determined the outcome of a game in which Utah somehow managed to hang within a single point with less than 10-minutes to play and was within 4-points with 4 1/2 minutes remaining. The Jazz, still riding momentum from their Game 3 blowout, held the Spurs to under 41% shooting while shooting over 47% themselves against San Antonio’s 4th-ranked FG% defense that limited opponents to 44% shooting in the regular season.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, they were unable to overcome the misfortune of having the refereeing crew of Steve Javie, Ken Mauer and Joe DeRosa assigned to work their game in front of the passionate Utah fans. Javie and Mauer take pleasure in being “jerks,” and love the prospect of having the power to enrage an entire arena. At a point early in the game they decided they simply weren’t giving Utah the benefit of the doubt on any 50/50 whistle.
That’s what made their performance so diabolically genius. In the NBA – the majority of the calls are judgement calls. A traveling violation or a personal foul could be called on virtually every possession. It isn’t the job of the officials to make every single call – as much as it is to be consistent at both ends. Most of Javie’s calls were by-the-book correct – but when compared to the other end of the court were blatantly biased. It’s why when a Utah player went “straight-up” with their arms and a Spurs’ player initiated contact the end result was two free throws – and why when a Jazz player (such as Paul Millsap or Deron Williams) did the same it was a no-call. As a result, a Utah team that averaged 30 free throw attempts in the regular season and 29.3 in the first 3 games shot just 2 FT’s in the 4th-quarter. Conversely, a Spurs team that averaged 24 FT attempts in the regular season and 27.7 in the first 3 games shot a ridiculous 25 free throws in the 4th-quarter of a game that had a 1-point margin after three quarters.
Overall, San Antonio was clearly the better team in 3 of the first 5 games, but this officiating injustice likely was the difference between a 5-game series going to atleast a Game 6 or 7 in a postseason where Utah had already rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win a Game 7 on the road against the higher seed.
All of this leads to a much broader question:
Do NBA officials decide who wins and loses games?
This has been discussed a great deal to the point conspiracy theorists believe every single thing that happens from games to trades to the draft lottery is somehow masterfully controlled by David Stern.
This is my opinion: Most of the time the officials do not determine who wins and loses NBA games. The best teams (which often have the best players) win the games they deserve to. However – occasionally with certain officials in certain circumstances, there’s no doubt in my mind officials can and have done their best to sway the outcome. I think the officials who do this fall into two different categories:
1) The officials who operate in the “best interest of the league.”
This is Bob Delaney and Dick Bavetta swinging Game 6 of the 2001 WCF between the Kings & Lakers to force a Game 7. For Jazz fans, this is Bob Delaney and Dick Bavetta swinging pivotal Game 5 of the 2008 Conference Semifinals (tied 2-2) between the Jazz and Lakers in LA. Similar with Danny Crawford and the 2006 NBA Finals between the Mavericks and Heat, and Bavetta with the infamous shot-clock violation in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals.
A relative phenomenon of this is “star calls.” Officials operate knowing that it’s in the league’s best interest if the Kobes, LeBrons, and Wades score a ton of points – and if they get a few extra free throws that a role-player like Paul Millsap normally wouldn’t get – in the big picture that’s viewed as being “in the best interest of the league.” It sells more jersey’s if a “star” averages over 25 points thanks to a few extra free throws than if he averages 20 from unbiased calls.
Similarly, it’s much more legendary and marketable if Michael Jordan hits the championship-winning jumper over Bryon Russell, than if he’s called for an offensive foul and the Jazz end the Bulls’ dynasty in Game 7 with an injured Scottie Pippen. In 2002, it was far more marketable to have a Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals and then a Kobe-Shaq three-peat than a Kings-in-6 Conference Finals and a championship parade in the city of Sacramento.
Again in the big-picture officials can’t and don’t control which teams win championships, but at times they influence and do their best to sway an outcome one way or the other.
2) The officials who hold or develop a personal agenda/vendetta.
Obviously – this includes Steve Javie’s Game 4 performance in the 2007 WCF. It’s just Javie being Javie – an absolute jerk. Bennet Salvatore, Kenny Mauer and Joey Crawford will harbor similar grudges. If you push the wrong buttons they will do their best to screw you over for the rest of the game.
These personal grudges can expand from a single game to a playoff series or to a career. Bob Delaney harbored a grudge against Shaquille O’Neal throughout his career and that finally boiled over with a controversial ejection in 2004. (Shaq was ejected from a game in Utah where Delaney called both of Shaq’s technicals. Even as a life-long Jazz fan – I thought Shaq’s 2nd-T was a terrible call).
Also stemming from this ideal is when Jeff Van Gundy was fined $100,000 for claiming intelligence that league officials were specifically targeting Rockets’ center Yao Ming on certain calls. While there were certainly doubters that Van Gundy was crying wolf, a personal bias amongst referees certainly shouldn’t be a surprise considering the fair and impartial officials the league has employed over the past 15 years.
So do the referees determine the outcome of most games? No, but they can and have influenced the outcome of several important ones. And despite that, we still watch 82 times per year, we still live and die during playoff games, and we still follow every offseason move. To me, this demonstrates the main reason behind the league’s success and popularity isn’t due to unduly placing superstars on pedestals but rather is succinctly stated in its longtime slogan:
“I love his game.”