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Rockets Letting Officiating Control Their Gameplay?

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Game 2 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets tips off Tuesday night from Oakland. While there’s plenty of star power to go around, all eyes will be on the referees. The Rockets have made refereeing and foul calls the primary narrative coming out of Game 1. It was a great game that was as competitive as we all expected, but James Harden, Daryl Morey and the Rockets couldn’t stop talking about fouls (or the lack thereof). “Landing space” has now become the NBA catch-phrase of the week.

It’s not uncommon for playoff teams coming off tough losses to blame officiating. The idea is to set things up favorably for the rest of the series, or at least try to create some advantage. The Rockets though went overboard when Harden — known for the high-volume of foul shots he shoots every game — said he just wants a fair chance! This was ironic since Harden gets to the charity stripe more than anyone else. Harden has elevated the tricks of manipulating the referees to an art form over the last couple of years. Some fans feel Harden flops and flails more than any other player and for him to play victim is laughable. #FairChance immediately became a tending hashtag across the NBA world.

Landing Space

The main complaint by Houston was that the refs missed several Warriors’ closeout fouls on 3-point attempts. The main trigger for the controversy was a no-call on Draymond’s close-out on a Harden 3-point attempt on Rockets’ final possession. This triple could have tied the game.

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It’s clear that Harden is actually kicking his legs forward and this was a good no-call. In fact, he falls down because he kicks himself out of balance and not because of anything Draymond did to him. While the Rockets and Harden lost a lot of credibility with this video, they did have some legitimate complaints against some of Klay Thompson‘s closeouts earlier in the game. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni claims the refs actually told him they missed four such closeout calls in the first half, equating to 12 free throws, per D’Antoni.

In this day and age of NBA Twitter and YouTube, this has spawned a 48-hour cycle of videos and analysis from all sides show-casing all kinds of narratives. Some say Warriors got all kinds of breaks. Others say Harden and the Rockets flop and whine a lot. Videos like the ones below show how the Rockets had some questionable closeouts on Stephen Curry where they invaded his landing space. Basically, conversations went in all directions as you might expect.

Too Much Data

All the above discussions are still in the realm of normal and typical NBA conversation. But what put things over the top was a report detailing a data-driven analysis of refereeing in the Warrior-Rockets games with an eye on how zebras specifically deal with the Warriors. The Rockets have supposedly shared this with the NBA, claiming that dozens of calls were missed in last year’s Western Conference Finals across all seven games, especially in Game 7.

The Rockets seem to seriously suggest they deserved to be in the Finals instead of the Warriors last year. Some feel this report and the timing of its leak crosses the line and totally takes the focus away from the game. We are in the middle of the most important playoff series of this year’s NBA– and we are completely distracted by conspiracy theories on officiating.

And the NBA’s two-minute report didn’t help matters either. They did say that the controversial Draymond’s closeout at the end of game was indeed a good no-call. However, they also added that two other foul calls on Curry and a travel on Klay were missed. Obviously all of those non-calls helped the Warriors, though it’s not surprising that they swallowed the whistle on a star player, Curry, with 5 fouls in a home playoff game. These things are par for the course in the NBA.

Let’s Just Play

I have never been a big fan of NBA officiating, but I don’t see any major conspiracy or scandal here. I see overreaction, distraction and posturing by the Houston Rockets. It’s smart on their part to play this angle. In fact, most of the time, it’s the fans of other teams who typically complain about all the calls that Harden usually gets. The Rockets are going on the attack this time.

Unfortunately, all of these narratives mean nobody was talking about a great game and some amazing basketball in Game 1. Kevin Durant carried the Warriors again and looked like the World’s best player. Curry nailed a clutch three.

None of that mattered. Now, we enter Game 2 with all kinds of suspicions about the referees. Will they sport a tight whistle and give all these calls to Houston due to their complaining? Should we expect the Dubs to be less aggressive on defense and yield more space on 3s? Does this mean the Rockets will nail more 3s and free throws and win the game? We shall find out soon, but let’s hope the narrative coming out of Game 2 is basketball and not some data science report on landing space or something.

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About Aravind Srinivasan

Aravind loves two things- the NBA and writing. He has been a long-time Phoenix Suns fans since the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson era of the mid-90’s. He now lives in the Golden State and follows the Warriors closely. An avid sports and NBA blogger since the early days of blogging, he is now a Suns and Dubs writer for TLSM. His favourite Sun is Steve Nash and his favourite Warrior is Steph Curry. Twitter: @15cent

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