OAKLAND — This Houston Rockets rage was not about one game.
This wasn’t about Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals, where they fell 104-100 to the Golden State Warriors and left Oracle Arena utterly convinced yet again that the defending champions are getting the benefit of the whistle to a devastating degree.
This wasn’t about emotion — though there was plenty of that. Mike D’Antoni getting his technical in the third quarter, when he chewed on official Zach Zarba’s left ear like it was a rib-eye and nearly got tossed.
Chris Paul losing his cool in the late third quarter, and again near the end regulation when was ejected after the latest no-call left him incensed. James Harden, whose poor shooting night (9-of-28) had everything to do with all those times he believed he should’ve been sent to the line, wanting to rip his Beard out at all those points in between and saying afterward that he just wanted “a fair chance.”
Rockets general manager in Daryl Morey, whose reputation as a leader of the analytics movement is rooted in his ability to let the evidence guide one’s process, sharing his emotional reaction to it all via Twitter when he retweeted Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after the game.
No, this was about the NBA’s most analytically-minded organization deciding long ago that all the data in this heavy-hitter matchup proves their point: The Warriors, as they see it, are getting the kind of officiating edge that simply must be stopped. And Game One – which was refereed by Zarba, Josh Tiven, and Courtney Kirkland – confirmed their fears that this playoff battle with the Warriors might be just as painful as the last when it comes to the officiating.
By the Rockets’ internal count from their video crew, there were eight attempted three-pointers that should have been fouls in Game One – good for 24 free throw attempts that would’ve certainly decided the game. There was insult added to injury on that front as well, with D’Antoni and Harden both saying that officials told them at halftime that they had missed foul calls on four Rockets three-point attempts.
But make no mistake, this is much bigger than one game.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the Rockets have been making a data-driven case with the NBA for quite some time that these Super Team Warriors are getting a major officiating advantage in these heavy-hitter matchups. And of all the specific examples that have been discussed with league officials, none has left them more suspect of the system than the 2018 Western Conference Finals. This series opener, more than anything, was salt being poured directly into that Rockets wound.
When that series ended nearly a year ago, the Rockets’ research had just begun. They secured the play-by-play officiating reports from each game from the NBA – a service that is afforded to individual teams (teams aren’t given reports for other teams, which makes it hard to compare). These reports document the league’s verdict on correct calls and missed calls in the same way as the Last Two Minute reports that are shared publicly, with the obvious difference being that it accounts for all 48 minutes of action.
And after the Rockets went through every line, tallying all the missed calls for each team and adding up the potential points that were lost along the way, it wasn’t pretty: The Rockets, according to the sources, had a double-digit point deficit in six of the seven games (and a small edge in Game 2). In all, sources say, they were harmed to the tune of 93 points. Game Seven was the worst, the research showed, with the league-issued report indicating that they should have had 18 more points. More specifically, two of the 27 consecutive missed three-pointers that did them in were ruled to have been missed foul calls.
What’s more, the same ‘landing space’ play that had the Rockets furious after Game One was a major point of frustration during that series – especially after their Game 7 loss, and with D’Antoni as upset as anyone over the matter. As detailed in this “NBA Video Rulebook” breakdown, defenders are required to allow shooters to “safely return to the floor.”
The vertical jumpshots are the easiest to officiate, but the rule also applies to plays in which the shooter’s momentum carries him to a spot that’s different form where the jump originated. This historical backdrop of this debate wasn’t lost on Rockets officials, either: In Sept. 2017, the NBA instituted a rule that allowed officials to call a flagrant or technical if the defender “recklessly positioned his foot in an unnatural way” under the shooter; the rule was inspired by then-Golden State center Zaza Pachulia’s placement of his foot under Kawhi Leonard during the 2017 Western Conference Finals, when the then-San Antonio star had his season ended by that ankle injury.
“Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it,” Harden said. “And I’ll live with the results. …We all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi. That can change the entire series. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results. It’s plain and simple.”
To that end, the Rockets also believe that another one of their allegations was confirmed yet again in Game One: The notion that the league’s more experienced officials are far less willing to call this play in accordance with the rules, as compared to younger officials. Sources say the Rockets raised this research-inspired complaint with the NBA months ago, and it didn’t help matters in their eyes on that front that this game fell right in line with that theory (Zarba is in his 16th season, Tiven is in his ninth, and Kirkland is in his 19th).
When Morey sent that tweet which will likely lead to his latest fine, the “2006” mention sparked an obvious flashback: Cuban’s Mavericks lost to Miami in the 2006 Finals that remain among the most controversial in the league’s history when it comes to the officiating. But there was another key event that year as well, as Morey left the Boston Celtics to join the Rockets as an assistant general manager in April of 2006 en route to building this team wants so badly to end this Warriors run and win the franchise’s first title since 1995.
If they don’t get the calls they believe they deserve this time around, though, this debate will likely rage on into yet another disappointing finish.