Referee Marc Davis got the call right on the biggest play of the 2017 playoffs so far: the “slide under” close-out foul by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia that re-injured Kawhi Leonard‘s bum left ankle, which Leonard had tweaked just 1:50 earlier. At least one of Davis’ bosses was watching — Senior VP of replay and referee operations Joe Borgia, who noted on his “Making the Call” NBA-TV segment Sunday that “the referee, luckily, stayed on the play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”
The play will surely stand in history, the video shared endlessly around the internet, as the point where the underdog Spurs lost any chance of winning this Western Conference Finals series against the Warriors. Pachulia’s “dangerous” foul will be remembered, and replays will show what Borgia and other NBA officiating execs strive for — an NBA referee unassumingly doing his job, signalling the call, getting it right. The guys in the light grey shirts look good on the most-watched video of the 2017 playoffs.
Very few will remember the call Davis made just 33 seconds before Leonard was injured.
It was an innocuous enough play, and the Warriors’ Draymond Green is probably still wondering what he did to deserve the technical foul Davis called on him. Spurs guard Danny Green had fumbled the ball near the Spurs bench and Draymond was on him, digging at it, making sure he couldn’t recover possession. The ball went out of bounds off Danny Green, Warriors ball.
The D. Green in question clapped his hands once, let out a yell and looked downcourt toward the Warriors bench, hoping to energize his team. The turnover was the first empty possession for the Spurs in the 2nd half. The Warriors were down 20 and needed an emotional lift — on defense, especially — and Green, the emotional leader of the team, was trying to provide just that when Davis T-ed him up before he could inbound the ball.
“Maybe on the bend-over …” ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy tried to offer an explanation but paused. “Taunting?” it was suggested. …”I don’t know,” Van Gundy decided. Nobody else seemed to know either, and the boo-birds at the Oracle arena in Oakland circled for a moment and then flocked to Davis. They always find him, it seems, in Milwaukee, Houston, Oakland; the city doesn’t matter, they’re there. Sometimes he seems to invite them in.
Davis and those technical fouls
The technical issued to Green was the 8th individual technical foul Davis has called in his last five games. No other individual techs were called in those games. There was the team defensive three seconds Tony Brothers penalized the Raptors for in Milwaukee, but in those five playoff games, Davis was the only referee calling any Ts on players.
- April 25, Houston, Thunder-Rockets Game 5: Double techs, Russell Westbrook (OKC) and Patrick Beveley (HOU) for “arguing” (trash talking), 4th quarter. Rockets win 105-99, eliminate Thunder 4-1.
- April 27, Milwaukee, Bucks-Raptors Game 6: Bucks coach Jason Kidd, arguing w/ Davis, 4th quarter. Raptors win 92-89, eliminate Bucks 4-2.
- May 2, Boston, Wizards-Celtics Game 2: Double techs, Markieff Morris (WAS) and Isaiah Thomas (BOS), confrontation in 3rd quarter. Celtics win in overtime 129-119, take 2-0 lead in series.
- May 5, Houston, Rockets-Spurs Game 3: James Harden (HOU) and Patrick Beverley (HOU), 4th quarter, arguing calls w/ Davis. Spurs win 103-92, take 2-1 lead in series.
- May 14, Oakland, Spurs-Warriors Game 1: Draymond Green, apparently for being Draymond Green. Warriors win 113-111, take 1-0 lead in series.
The NBA average over the last two seasons is about three technicals called per four games, according to figures published by The Sporting News in an article on NBA referee policies. The eight called by Davis alone in his last five games is more than double (2.13 times) the NBA average.
If the league sees this as a problem (and nobody’s saying it does), NBA officiating operations hasn’t responded in kind. Quite the opposite, in fact: Davis has been promoted twice since the 5-game technical streak began, first to advance to the semifinals officiating pool, and last weekend to the conference finals pool of 20 officials.
So here Davis was, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, interrupting an awesome display of hot shooting by both teams to open the 2nd half — 29 combined points in the first eight possessions of the half — to issue a technical foul on Draymond Green for, apparently, being Draymond Green.
Baiting Draymond Green?
Much about Game 1 has been overlooked in light of Leonard’s injury, which occurred on the Spurs next possession following the technical on Green. But Davis’ technical on Green was a huge call at a time when, 1) not only were the Spurs and Warriors putting on an incredible show of net-scorching shooting, but 2) the Warriors were trying to build some momentum to get back in the game. The call interrupted the flow of the game to draw the attention of everyone watching from the brilliant play on the court to the officiating, to Davis and Green.
It’s still not clear why, or what Green did, but the importance of Green being the transgressor should not be lost on anybody. Green has, to say the least, a fiery temperament, and his flagrant foul suspension in last season’s NBA Finals cost the Warriors dearly in their quest to repeat as champions. He plays the game with emotions fully charged. The Warriors feed off Green’s energy, and he is unquestionably the leader of the Warriors defense (the No. 2 rated D in the league behind the Spurs’).
The toxic byproducts of Green’s full tilt approach to the game are technical fouls — he had 16 during the season, the most of his career, and six flagrant fouls, according to ESPN stats. But while Green exceeded the flagrant foul points limit in last season’s playoffs, he has not accumulated any this post-season. The technical issued by Davis was the 2nd on Green in the 2017 playoffs (the first was in Utah, May 6), well under the limit of seven allowed before an automatic one-game suspension kicks in.
The only risk for Green in being T’ed up in Game 1 was the good chance that his next emotional outburst would be a second violation, and he’d be ejected from the game. Down 20 in the 3rd quarter to a team that won 61 games during the regular season, the Warriors could ill afford to lose him. They needed Green’s emotional energy to drive a comeback, and here Davis had given Green a technical for doing just that, providing a burst of energy on defense and showing emotion for the benefit of his team and the home crowd.
Davis had hit Draymond Green with a technical foul for being Draymond Green and, given his officiating track record in these playoffs, because he was Marc Davis.
It was bad refereeing, or worse — it could be construed as an official “baiting” a player, in this case an emotionally charged player indispensable to his team. Davis would call four personal fouls on Green in Game 1, plus the technical, shades of the game-long drama between Davis and Rockets star James Harden in Houston May 5. Green, to his credit, didn’t respond by escalating the situation (in contrast to how Harden handled, or was handled by, Davis’ officiating in Houston) and ended up playing nearly 37 minutes and making key defensive plays for the Warriors in crunch time.
Though the technical — and Davis’ focus on Green — did not turn out to be a major factor in the outcome of the game, this was the kind of officiating nonsense that gives the NBA a bad reputation, turns fans off and gives rise to all sorts of crazy theories about the league’s underlying motivations — just the sort of thing commissioner Adam Silver is trying to get away from in the new era of post-David Stern transparency.
Yet in all likelihood, Davis will be promoted again to work the NBA Finals, just as he was last season and the season before that; and this season from the first round to the semifinals and now the conference finals. Yes, there are new initiatives on the way and NBA Official claims to track every call and hold officials to “the most rigorous standards in all of sports” (see ref. notes). Yet there appear to be no consequences for bad officiating beyond the public embarrassment of having missed calls labelled “incorrect” in one of the league’s “Last Two Minute Reports”.
For what it’s worth, one of the refereeing initiatives underway is a “newly created post-game survey process for coaches to share officiating feedback.” Steve Kerr and the Warriors should use it. They have major cause to file a complaint regarding the technical foul, and the general “over-policing” of Green during Game 1.
Too many whistles: Game 1 officiating sketch
Spurs-Warriors Game 1 was in many ways, a difficult game to watch. The Warriors weren’t themselves coming out of a six day layoff following their sweep of the Jazz. Klay Thompson had a lousy shooting day (2 for 11). They turned the ball over six times in the opening quarter. The Spurs nearly matched them with five turnovers of their own. (Official scorer’s report).
The referees contributed to the off-key nature of the game by calling 48 personal fouls, about eight more than both the NBA season and playoff averages. Pau Gasol was victimized the most (a rare day) and has been outplayed by Pachulia in the series (another rare thing — Zaza has enjoyed a nice second life in the NBA since leaving Atlanta a few years ago). When did Zaza Pachulia become a better player than Pau Gasol?
The officials for the game were led by crew chief Dan Crawford, the senior official in the league (in his 32nd season and 29th playoff) who last worked with Davis May 5 in Houston. Davis was 2nd official. Third official Tom Washington had not worked a game since officiating with Davis May 2 in Boston for Game 2 of the Wizards-Celtics series, in which 50 personal fouls were called. The makeup of this crew seems like it may have been a “chemistry and composition” effort by the NBA to pair Davis (the bane of home teams) and Washington (a 65% homer this season) with Crawford, who likes to control a game — and that’s just what Crawford did in Oakland.
As you can see, the calls were even for the game, with an advantage to the Warriors through the 3rd quarter, then shifting to the Spurs in the 4th quarter when neither Washington nor Davis called a foul on the Spurs. This coincided with the flow of the game, too obvious to be good officiating. This was a prickly officiating crew, with bad calls, touch fouls and the nonsense technical on the Warriors’ Green giving the refs a larger-than-necessary presence throughout.
- Crawford called 21 fouls for the game, well more than the average (about 13 or 14) and tops in the four 2017 playoff games I’ve surveyed.
- Crawford takes the lead in the 1st quarter, setting the tone with five fouls while the other two whistles are quiet.
- The 17 personal fouls called in the 2nd quarter was quite the barrage — 9 on the Warriors and 8 on the Spurs while the Warriors were trying to stay in the game. It made for some difficult basketball, and difficult viewing.
- Gasol’s first two fouls came in the 1st quarter and he went to the bench. This quickly turned into lucky misfortune for the Spurs due to the brilliant first half David Lee played.
- 3rd foul on Gasol a questionable call by Crawford at 5:18 in the 2nd quarter. “That’s a tough call,” said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Gasol was discombobulated the rest of the game, played only 16 minutes. His line: 5 points, 2 rebs, 5 fouls. Enter David Lee.
- Davis finished the game with an 11-4 disparity in favor of the Spurs, made less remarkable by Washington’s 9-4 disparity the other way, which was actually better than his 12-5 disparity in favor of the Celtics the last game he worked.
- Davis, despite his handling of Green, which seems to be something of a dramatic trend with Davis, was not the worst official in the game. Crawfords 21 fouls called were too many, too often, and too “touch-foul”.
Too many whistles marred this game. The Spurs on average in the playoffs had been called for just 18.2 personal fouls per game prior to Game 1; the Warriors average was 19.6. The combined 37.8 avg. makes the 48 personal fouls called just a bit more outrageous. This was not the Wizards vs. the Celtics, two teams in need of parental supervision in their series.
The Spurs (103.5 D-rating) and the Warriors (104.0 D-rating) are the elite defensive teams in the NBA, with the Warriors NBA-leading offense in need of no introduction and the Spurs in the top 10 in scoring efficiency. Coming into the series, it certainly looked like a classic match-up filled with future Hall of Famers and current All-Pros, and an MVP candidate (Leonard).
There was no need to muck up the basketball with so many whistles. One could say the refs didn’t have a good handle on the action or the teams, and were somewhat disrespectful to the game itself by, at times, becoming bigger than the game. The fault here probably lies with Crawford, the crew chief and senior official in the NBA, in his 32nd season and 29th playoff.
Game 2 of the series, refereed by Ed Malloy, Ken Mauer and Kane Fitzgerald saw only 36 personal fouls called and no technical fouls on either team. Imagine that.
Source for season stats, playoff stats, player links and advanced stats is basketball-reference.com. Source for all game stats are the Official Scorer’s Reports found NBA.com at the bottom of Associated Press “recaps”. The NBA has responded to this series with only stock “fan relations” PR quoted above, and to point to the March 2 announcement of new officiating initiatives at http://pr.nba.com/nba-officiating-initiatives/
- ABC Broadcast, Game 1, w/ Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson
- NBA-TV, “Making the Call w/ Joe Borgia”, 5/14/17: http://official.nba.com/making-the-call-may-14-2017/
- Full quote from Borgia: Joe Borgia, Senior VP of NBA Replay and Referee Operations. “We see this quite often in the NBA where that defender they just go a little bit too far, and you’re not allowed to take the landing area away from a shooter. Obviously a very dangerous situation for players, and the referee, luckily, stayed on that play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”
- The Sporting News, NBA technical foul trends, 12/8/2016: http://www.sportingnews.com/nba/news/referees-policy-technical-fouls-ejections-nbra-adam-silver-bob-delaney/5bxteydvb19i1bxnomhbnd0l6
- Technical foul points system, 2016 report: http://www.nba.com/2016/news/features/steve_aschburner/06/12/draymond-green-suspension-could-spark-changes-in-point-system/
- NBA.com, “Draymond Green Walking the Fine Line”, 4/13/17: http://www.nba.com/article/2017/04/13/draymond-green-walking-line-fine-line-redemption-golden-state-warriors
- San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/17, “Green gets 1st technical”: http://www.sfgate.com/warriors/article/Warriors-Green-gets-1st-technical-foul-of-11127427.php
- Draymond Green career stats, ESPN: http://www.espn.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/6589/draymond-green
- Associated Press “Business Insider”, 2016 finals pre-game wire: http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-the-latest-green-aware-of-technicals-mum-on-the-topic-2016-6