The boos began as a smattering but became a steady chorus, raining down on the officials and the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard as he stepped to the free throw line with 10 seconds to go in the 1st half of Friday night’s Spurs-Rockets game in Houston. It wasn’t this shooting foul on Ryan Anderson that the Rockets fans were booing, or Leonard, really. It was a culmination of calls and non-calls made and not made in the 2nd quarter by the referees — five on the Rockets and two of them on star James Harden — but not a single call against the Spurs by refs Marc Davis and Brian Forte.
This foul putting Leonard on the line was called by Forte. It wasn’t a terrible call. There was contact, not a lot, but enough, as Leonard pulled up for a jumpshot. But the Rockets hadn’t been getting calls like this, hell no, and Harden had been attacking the Spurs defense most of the half. And so the boos began. Although Forte had made the call, Harden approached Davis. It was Davis who had called two fouls on Harden, his 2nd and 3rd of the game, the last one on an odd, awkward play with 5:18 to go before halftime as Harden was shooting a three. Spurs center Pau Gasol had moved into Harden as The Beard shot, exaggerating his follow through to ensure that he got the call. But he hit Gasol in the head with his off hand, and Davis didn’t like it. An unlikely offensive foul on Harden. Harden couldn’t believe the call then, and didn’t still, so it was Davis whom Harden approached now as Leonard shot his free throws and the boos rained down.
James Harden pleads his case to official Marc Davis during Game 3 of the Spurs-Rockets series Friday night in Houston, May 5, 2017. USA Today photo. Licence: Standard noncommercial purpose.
Davis, the official who was the bane of home teams during the 2016-17 season, had done it again. He had the Houston crowd’s attention, Harden made sure of that in walking over to him. He had the players’ attention — the player as far as the Rockets go — and he had the focus of the cameras, ESPN’s and those on photographer’s row. He was part of the show, the character the fans love to hate, a foil written in to draw out the best and worst of the show’s stars. Not the ideal part, no, but no minor role by any means, and for the moment the man at the center of it all. Forte might not have been in the building as far as the Rockets crowd in Houston was concerned.
While Harden pleaded his case to Davis, the ESPN broadcast team decided to help him out. They ran a series of low-lights showing Harden driving through the lane, taking hits from Gasol and other defenders but coming up empty. Harden wants the call on every drive to the basket, and in this game he is determined. Instead of retreating, he advances, demanding an official response. He’s put Davis on the spot in front of a hostile home crowd, precisely the place where Davis wants to be, based on the trend that emerges in games he referees.
During the season, the visiting teams had a 35-30 record in games Davis officiated, a 54% win rate, a remarkable thing in a league where the home teams have won about 60% of the games, historically. The visitors fared better than the league average when Davis worked their games in 10 of the last 14 seasons, though never quite like this season, where the divergence from the norm was a whopping 24.4%.
It hasn’t worked out that way in the playoffs so far, largely due to the Round 1 mismatches and the NBA not scheduling Davis to officiate a contender on the road until the Spurs-Rockets game (whether the Spurs remain a contender without injured Tony Parker is the question of this series). The Bucks on April 27 in Milwaukee were the first home team of these playoffs to fall with Davis as the ref. (See “More than a Slap on the Wrist (Part 1)“) The Wizards nearly had a road win with Davis as crew chief May 2 in Boston, but 2nd official Rodney Mott bailed the Celtics out by putting Isaiah Thomas on the line to tie the game with 14 seconds left. The Celtics won in overtime.
Friday night in Houston, Harden and the Rockets were the home team feeling a pattern of injustice from Davis. Harden took the bait, and as the game wore on Davis drew more and more of the Beard’s attention, culminating in a technical foul on Harden in the 4th Quarter. Davis is notably more approachable for the players than many of the league’s longtime officials (Davis is in his 19th NBA season), a practice that helps build the drama for the spectator, but doesn’t do the protesting player much good.
“He’s cool as they come, but he’s so arrogant,” one player said in an anonymous survey the LA Times conducted during the 2015-16 season to find the best and worst officials of the NBA. Davis was named one of the three worst. “He instigates things sometimes. Marc will go back at a player. He forgets that he’s talking to another man. Don’t challenge a man’s manhood. Now you are going too far.”
Davis is “hands down the worst,” another player said. “He acts likes he’s your friend, but he’ll just screw you. He’ll screw you and he’ll get the biggest attitude about it.”
While Harden and the 3rd-worst referee in the NBA engaged in ongoing debate about how the game was being officiated, Forte was the ref making most of the calls against the Rockets. Whatever Harden was saying, it wasn’t helping. Entering the 4th quarter, none of the three officials had bothered to call a foul on Spurs center Gasol; and Harden had the same number of fouls (3) as Spurs stars Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Gasol combined.
Below is the breakdown of the calls in the game. Note that the average number of fouls called per team per game this season was about 20, and this has held true in the playoffs.
For the game, we see five personal fouls fewer than the league average (20 per team), not including the technical fouls Davis called on Harden and Beverley in the 4th quarter when the Rockets players frustrations with Davis flared, all negotiations failed. Other key points:
- The Spurs 17 fouls were below even their average of 18.3 per game.
- Forte, in his 10th NBA season, saw only two fouls on the Spurs through 36 minutes of play. No, not as bad as Davis was in Milwaukee (not a single Raptor foul called by Davis in the first 36:52 of the game), but a 9 to 4 disparity suggests a rather one-sided view of the action.
- Danny Crawford, a 32-year veteran who was named the best ref in the NBA in the LA Times survey, set an odd tone at the start of the game by taking two Rockets’ fast break
baskets points off the scoreboard and calling a blocking foul on Patrick Beverley behind the play. He then put his whistle away, using it just twice more in the half.
- Crawford called the first fouls on all three Spurs stars, Leonard, Aldridge and finally Gasol in the 4th. If the officiating “game plan” was to “let them play” and not call touch fouls, it certainly worked for the Spurs.
- Davis was the most balanced in his calls, though most of them were called on the Spurs bench players and role players such as Danny Green and Dejounte Murray. The Davis-Harden story was about the non-calls as much as it was about the calls, and the three fouls on Harden in the first half.
The Spurs were the No.1 rated defense in the league this season (103.5 pts allowed/100 possessions). If the refs are letting them play their physical, constant pressure defense with less scrutiny than even their usual low foul rate, they’re very difficult to beat, and it’s bound to frustrate the opposition. The Rockets, with the Spurs defense in their grills, didn’t shoot well enough to win this game or any game (36.4% a team), though Harden himself did (14-28, 43 pts).
James Harden protests one of the two fouls referee Marc Davis called on him in the 2nd quarter of the Spurs-Rockets Game 3 in Houston, May 5, 2017. Photo by Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle. License: Standard noncommercial purpose
Yet despite the focus on the referees that clings to this game like a lingering doubt, it was all eminently watchable. The Spurs would go on to win, 103-92, taking a 2-1 lead in the series. They pulled away late in the 4th quarter by playing the most efficient offense either team had played all night (31 pts in the quarter), with Danny Green hitting two big shot threes. In the absence of Spurs injured point guard Parker, Patty Mills (Parker’s backup) and the Rockets’ Beverley were water bugs on a lake of hardwood, chasing each other all over the court in high speed bursts.
Harden’s trials and tribulations were made-for-TV drama, and his determination was remarkable. He drove down the lane at every opportunity, whether he was getting the calls or not. no matter how much he was being hit near the basket. Whether or not this was good basketball or something else entirely is debatable, but with his teammates struggling to make shots (an arctic 18-60, or 30%), Harden kept the Rockets in it until late in the 4th, when the Spurs fired up a 9-2 run.
The free throws capping the run brought Davis back into the picture, as he sent Mills to the line on a Beverley shooting foul with 2:38 to go in the game. It was Beverley’s 5th foul. The Spurs were up 94-82 at that point, and Davis’ call felt like the game clincher. Beverley turned his frustrations on Davis, and Davis hit him with a technical foul, the second on the Rockets in the quarter (Harden got the first). The Spurs made all three free throws, running the score up to 97-82 with 2:38 to play.
By the final horn, 25.7% of the fouls called in the game had been called on two players, Harden (4) and Beverley (5), the guys doing the most to force the action and keep the Rockets in it. In addition to the nine fouls, each had a technical foul issued by Davis, bringing their foul share up to 11 of 37 total calls, which looks more than a little odd in a game where the other key players were allowed to play with minimal interference from the refs.
The T’s marked the 4th game in a row for Davis in which he had called the only technical fouls in the game, going back to the last time Davis saw the Rockets, in Houston April 25.
- May 2 in Boston, Wizards-Celtics Game 2. Double technicals to Isaiah Thomas and Wizards PF Markieff Morris after a confrontation in the 3rd Quarter.
- April 27 in Milwaukee, Bucks-Raptors Game 6. Bucks coach Jason Kidd for arguing a missed slap call on a rebound and a blown charge-block call, both by Davis within 30 seconds of each other in the 4th quarter. Davis had called only one foul on the Raptors at that point, and that call was made 36:52 into the game.
- April 25 in Houston, Thunder-Rockets Game 5. Davis issued double technicals to Beverley and Russell Westbrook for “arguing” (trash talking) in the 4th quarter.
Is the NBA watching?
It would be difficult to believe that the NBA isn’t keeping tabs on these developments, and possibly even on Davis himself, given the infamous inbound play from last year’s Thunder-Spurs series and the ensuing public scrutiny of Davis, who was the official right on top of three obvious inbound violations. That got the attention of everyone who follows the league or watches sports news, as well as a statement from the league acknowledging that the game officials had blown the call.
“The Playoff Selection Process” page posted at NBA Official is the only document I can find relating to the league’s evaluation process of referees. (Note: An NBA press release dated 3/2/17 announced the launch of an Officiating Advisory Council and a number of other initiatives “with an eye toward continuous improvement” to take place over the next few years.) Davis has survived two personnel cuts for this year’s playoffs, the first to qualify as one of the 37 officials working Round 1 games, the second to advance into the pool of 30 working the semifinals. The evaluation process, assuming it is more than just a corporate rubber stamp, is described in two sentences:
“The determination on playoff advancement for referees is based on referees’ overall evaluations from the regular season, as well as their performances in the previous round of the playoffs. Those evaluations factor in analytical data and ratings by coaches, GMs and referee management.”
Okay, so surveys involving players such as the LA Times survey don’t matter. Davis having called the only technical fouls (six in all) in his last four games, however, seems like the sort of data that can’t be ignored, in particular the technicals issued in Milwaukee and Houston, where the crowds were already riled up over Davis’ calls and non-calls when Davis called the Ts. The decision not to give Markieff Morris a technical foul (flagrant 1) after throwing Al Horford into the sideline area also seems like the sort of thing the league office would take note of.
It is possible that only geeks who study referee data at basketball-reference.com are aware of Davis’ visiting team .540 win-loss record, or that Danny Crawford is the living embodiment of the league averages — but this doesn’t seem likely. The existence online of analytical stat pages for each referee is a sure sign that this writer is not the only NBA geek who has ever looked at them (I didn’t know those pages existed until last week). The NBA, apparently, does not.
The league announced on March 2 a number of new initiatives, including expansion of officiating staff over the next three years, an Officiating Advisory Council, a new scheduling system to “optimize the chemistry and composition of crews”, and “the use of a new data-driven review system”, among other things. The review system will “create objective referee measurement standards and track progress regarding call accuracy and errors per game over multiple seasons” — which is to say, whatever the NBA does now probably doesn’t track progress or trends such as Davis’ visiting team win rate over time. Whatever the NBA does now in the 2017 playoffs isn’t exactly clear, but they do mention the use of “analytical data” in the playoff referee selection process.
The questions begged here are whether or not the NBA assigns refs to playoff games randomly or whether there is a thought process involved in, for example, sending Davis to Houston for Game 5 of the Rockets series with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, OKC facing elimination on the road. And if there is a thought process in place, what is it? It’s obvious that Davis is not worried at all about incurring the wrath of a home crowd or going head to head with a star player — this much was evident in Houston on Friday and in Milwaukee April 27.
If it’s not random, and there is a thought process involved in making the officials’ assignments, do we really want to know why — with the Bucks needing to win to stay alive in the playoffs — the official who was the bane of home teams this season was assigned to referee a Game 6 in Milwaukee?
Note: As of games through Wednesday May 10, including Wizards-Celtics Game 5 in Boston, neither Crawford or Davis has worked another game since Game 3 in Houston May 5. Forte was 4th “alternate official” for one game. The officiating pool will be cut from 30 to 20 after the semifinals round.
This post has been edited to include notes about the NBA’s new officiating initiatives announced in March. Source for player stats, regular season and playoff averages is basketball-reference.com. Sources for game play-by-play data are the Official Scorer’s Reports posted at NBA.com at bottom of AP recaps.
- ESPN/ABC Broadcast of Spurs-Rockets Game 3, 5/5/17. Analyst: Doug Collins
- Official play-by-play: http://www.nba.com/games/20170505/SASHOU#/pbp
- NBA referees data: http://www.basketball-reference.com/referees/davisma99r.html
- Last Two Minute report, Wizards-Celtics Game 2, 5/2/17: http://official.nba.com/last-two-minute-report/?gameNo=0041600202&eventNum=558
- LA Times survey, NBA best and worst officials, 1/31/16: http://www.latimes.com/sports/nba/la-sp-nba-best-worst-referees-20160131-story.html
- Playoff selection process: http://official.nba.com/playoff-officials-selection-process/
- Fox Sports: Officiating fiasco, Thunder-Spurs, 05/03/16: http://www.foxsports.com/nba/story/san-antonio-spurs-oklahoma-city-thunder-referee-mistake-dion-waiters-050316
- NBA press release, officiating changes, 03/02/17: http://pr.nba.com/nba-officiating-initiatives/