Congratulations to the NBA for stealing its own show. The Cavaliers played one of the most spectacular Finals games of all time, winning 137–116, scoring a playoffs record of 86 points in the first half, and hitting a Finals record of 24 3s to extend the season to a Game 5 while the sport’s most iconic player threw a dunk to himself off the backboard. And here I am to talk about the game’s officials, who somehow managed to make a mess of a game Cleveland would’ve won under pretty much any circumstances.
Like with most officiating mistakes, the referees did this to themselves. They did not need to call any technical fouls on Draymond Green! There is no textbook rule for which curse words are over the line, or for which arm motions result in techs. But they called somewhere between one and two on him, and that’s when things got weird.
Here is the first tech, which everybody assumed was on Green.
And here’s the second, which was definitely on Green.
The second T should have led to Green’s ejection, but he kept on playing. After much confusion, the referees clarified that the technical in the first half had actually been on coach Steve Kerr — even though Green was yelling more prominently — and the official scoresheet indicated that the tech had been on Green:
According to ESPN’s Doris Burke, the official scorers unanimously said they remembered the officials indicating it was on Green. Kerr said after the game that he was under the impression the initial tech was on Green. The NBA later amended the official scoresheet:
The best-case scenario here is that the officials had genuinely called the first foul on Kerr but then made a massive mistake when reporting the foul. (There might have been some confusion over the fact that they were also calling Green for a personal foul.) Green lent this some credence after the game by explaining he overheard that the first-half tech was on Kerr during the first half. Even still, this is a huge, public, embarrassing mistake. Players and teams make decisions under the impression that the officially announced foul counts are accurate, so if officials are miscommunicating their decisions, it’s bad enough already.
But it’s also possible that the referees realized they’d just ejected Green — a decision that might affect the game or the series in a way they hadn’t intended — and they quickly concocted a plan to retroactively reassign the earlier technical foul. This would be a tremendous overstep of what officials are allowed to do. They are not time travelers. They help create basketball history, but that doesn’t mean they can undo history when it becomes inconvenient.
The officials also failed to eject Zaza Pachulia for punching Iman Shumpert in the crotch:
The Warriors have set many records the past few years, yet perhaps their greatest innovation is in the field of hitting opponents in the groin.
The officials had some other questionable calls in Golden State’s favor, including a flagrant foul on Kevin Love for slapping Kevin Durant in the face, although it really looked like he was going for the ball:
And they ignored several flagrant-ish fouls by Draymond Green and tagged Cavaliers deep-bench reserve Dahntay Jones with a technical foul for yelling at Kevin Durant.
You could watch all this and come up with a pretty convincing case that the officials had it in for the Cavs tonight and were trying to ease Golden State toward a championship. One problem though: For about half of the game, everybody assumed the opposite was happening. The Cavaliers took 22 free throws in the first quarter, which at the time led to the internet arguing about whether or not the NBA was rigging the game to avoid a series sweep. I mean, how else could you explain them missing this blatant backcourt violation on Kyrie Irving?
As for the argument that the officials were trying to rig the game in Golden State’s favor by calling technical fouls on them but not ejecting the player called for technical fouls, well, it doesn’t really hold a lot of water. It’s not like Green was particularly demonstrative on his second T — if the officials were trying to rig the game for Golden State, why would they call a technical on him in the first place?
The most prominent official Friday night? Mike Callahan, who had refereed 11 straight Cleveland wins — make it 12 — and has now officiated the last three times the Cavs have beaten the Warriors.
So, the officials avoided ejecting two Warriors and called a bogus flagrant on the Cavs. And by the way, the other two officials besides Callahan don’t have great reputations — Marc Davis was voted the third-worst official in the league by players and coaches in an anonymous poll, and John Goble was officiating his very first Finals game. (It could be his last.)
What struck me about the officials was that their poor decisions weren’t spur-of-the-moment ones — like when a referee calls a block when it should’ve been a charge, or calls a goaltend on a shot that hadn’t quite reached the top of its arc. They blew calls that they had time to think about. They got to review the flagrant on Love, check the Pachulia smack, and stare down a steaming Green for seconds before deciding to pull the trigger on the technical fouls.
It seemed to me like the officials were trying to maintain control of the game while avoiding making a decision that could actually affect it. They wanted to whistle everything but avoid causing controversy by actually ejecting a player.
This did not work. It didn’t avoid controversy — we’re talking about it! — and it didn’t keep the game under control. LeBron and Kevin Durant still yelled at each other:
Matt Barnes still yelled at a fan:
It was one of the most unhinged Finals games I’ve ever seen, and while some of that stems from bad blood between two teams playing in their third straight Finals, I think some of it has to do with the officials’ attempts to draw a line in the sand and then not do anything when people actually stepped over that line.
Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity. And if fans of both teams are convinced the refs were rigging the game against them, maybe the refs were just really, really bad.