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Will Rockets-Warriors Be Defined by the Officiating?

And how did we get in this spot? Here are answers for all your questions.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ask some Olds, and they’ll tell you that the Warriors and the Rockets ruined basketball. Golden State formed an unbeatable superteam, and Houston hatched a highly-efficient but slow-churning offense that some folks just don’t like watching. Back in their day, that competitive disparity never existed (except when it did), and the best teams weren’t such a grind to watch (except when they were). Never mind that superteams have been around for decades, that the Warriors devised this roster by recruiting smart and drafting smarter, that schemes in basketball, like in any sport, evolve with rule changes, or that Houston’s strategy to compete with Golden State could be the solution to the “no one can beat the Warriors” grievance.

Never mind those never minds. Get on their lawns, and stay there all series. Golden State and Houston are playing in the second round of the NBA playoffs, and it’s one of the best damn matchups we’ll get all postseason. And for (hopefully!) seven games, I hope those Olds will do something they haven’t since the ‘90s: enjoy themselves. These teams aren’t ruining basketball, they’re giving it a heart transplant.

But there is one way the Warriors and Rockets could ruin the fun: by making this series a referendum on refereeing. Both sides felt wronged by the officiating in Game 1, which Houston lost, 104-100. But the postgame reaction was much more than the usual coded press conference words that we expect when a team has beef with the officials. Detailed reports, months of planning, subtweets, and childish rebuttals followed. Here’s an FAQ with all you need to know on Ref Gate heading into Game 2:

What Started All This?

Part of the Rockets’ brand is bemoaning officiating. They average three run-ups on refs a game, six are-you-serious hands in the air, and 10 confused crosscourt looks. Just this season, Chris Paul was fined for running into a ref; James Harden was fined for criticizing a ref; P.J. Tucker was ejected for yelling at a ref. There are many, many more examples, including one from Sunday’s Game 1.

With about nine seconds remaining and Houston down 103-100, Harden attempted a 3-pointer, which Draymond Green contested.

At first glance, Harden is egregiously landing in Green’s space, though Green also moves forward as he attempts to close out. NBA rules state that a defender has to permit space for the shooter to “safely return to the floor.” This works in Harden’s favor, since he inarguably jumps and lands in different spots. His selling trick—which no active player can quite pull off to Harden’s degree—is landing with his feet forward while holding his upper body slightly back, creating the illusion that Harden held his position.

But no whistle came from any member of the officiating crew. Five seconds later, Paul was ejected after receiving his second technical of the game for arguing with a referee.

“Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it,” Harden said after the loss, “and I’ll live with the results. But especially we all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi [Leonard]. That can change the entire series.” Harden was referencing the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference finals, in which Leonard was injured because of a reckless closeout by Zaza Pachulia. Though Harden’s implication has some merit, it ignores the context that his defenders are rarely putting Harden’s landing spots in danger—it’s Harden trying to position his landing spot to draw a foul. A great deal of Harden’s game relies on getting to the line, and this season alone he’s drawn 95 fouls on 3-point attempts.

Harden’s rancor at the podium also stems from what happened behind closed doors mid-game. Per The Athletic’s Sam Amick, coach Mike D’Antoni and Harden claim that the referees approached them at halftime to admit they missed four foul calls on four separate 3-point shots. They likely expected some course correction, and when the game was decided by a perceived no-call (which the NBA’s “Last Two Minute Report” confirmed was correct) Houston decided to unleash its season-long pet project.

Sorry, Pet Project?

A.k.a the Morey report. Amick reported Sunday that the Rockets organization has been tracking the accuracy of foul calls for “quite some time,” combing through the play-by-play officiating report for each game Houston played in (the NBA won’t give teams the reports for games they weren’t involved in) to determine if officials were missing calls with any bias one way or the other. I have a couple questions here, including if the analysts are paid overtime and if they needed three years of FBI experience to qualify for the job.

Houston’s theory—again, according to the NBA’s own play-by-play data—proved correct. (Stunningly, since the team took the seventh-most free throws during the regular season, and Harden led all players averaging 11 per game.) Crucial calls were being missed, most egregiously, the report concluded, in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. The Rockets lost to the Warriors by nine; the report found Houston retrospectively deserved 18 additional points as a result of 81 missed calls. Eighty one!

What Are the Warriors Upset About?

If players are mad about the calls Harden draws from the perimeter, the Beard isn’t paying attention. Harden perfected his shimmy long ago, a mix of deft hesitation and a well-sold shoulder lean. No matter, it never fails that a defender feels wronged and carps after the game. Sunday was different, because Harden’s final shot wasn’t called a foul. So Green agreed with the referee’s decision:

”When you land 3 feet ahead of where you shoot the ball from, that really ain’t my issue,” Green said. “I’ve been fouled by James on a James 3-pointer before.”

Golden State also believed that it deserved more foul calls, specifically for Kevin Durant, who finished with a game-high 15 free throws.

Who Has Made the Biggest Fool of Themselves in This Saga?

For all the Harden complaints and the excessive, obsessive line-by-line tallying, Steve Kerr ended up looking the worst (for now—the series is young). Before addressing the Rockets’ complaints during a press conference, he mimicked a flop. Mature!

“The reality is you get some, you lose some,” Kerr—the same coach who was fined in 2016 for criticizing an officiating crew—said. “The refs do the best job they can and you move on to the next game.”

What Will Happen Next?

Remember the Harden fine I mentioned from earlier this season? That was the result of criticism he aimed at Scott Foster, a referee who, for Paul and Harden especially, always seems to be on the other end of Houston officiating controversies. Three of the four games Harden has fouled out of in the last three seasons were in games Foster worked. After Harden’s rant in February, the league didn’t place Foster in another Rockets game for the rest of the regular season, but it just so happens that he’s working Game 2 of the series.

This isn’t the NBA firing back at Houston; as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst pointed out, the officiating crews are predetermined for the first four games of each series. But if Harden gets T’d up or another Rocket enters flagrant territory, there may be no stopping what this matchup, and perhaps this entire rivalry, will be demoted to: a disappointing series of technicalities.