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The [Insert Adjective Here] Reffing

Believe me, I realize that the adjective that most of you would like to insert here rhymes, just without the "R".  If it weren't against site rules I'd have thrown it in myself just for the humor quotient.

Following both games in this series we've heard a litany of complaints from the losing side regarding officiating.  Some of that is expected.  Referees are the fans' favorite out when their team falls short, edging out even the wildly popular head coach muckraking.  With the crucible fired hotter for the post-season the impulse will naturally intensify.

I will not completely refute the various arguments here.  The way the games have been called have had an affect on each.  I personally have not seen any kind of surprising bias one way or another but ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

However, amongst our complaints we need to remember something important about this series:

It's a devilishly hard matchup to officiate.

Were I a ref, I'd want any series besides this one.  You know it's going to be a long night trying to arbitrate between these two teams...a job verging on the impossible.

Consider that Houston and Portland are playing physical basketball with each other.  You could probably call fouls based on icy glares alone. 

Consider also that both teams play at a slow pace.  You can count the number of non-halfcourt possessions for both teams in the first two games and still have a finger or two left to sip tea with.  You might think a running game would be more difficult to officiate, but all you need to call that sort of affair is to be in reasonably good shape.  Transition plays involve 2-4 players at most.  They happen quickly but you have a clear field of view and contact is pretty well defined in most cases.  When you've got ten guys jamming the court every possession, bumping every cutter, jostling on every screen, fighting for every inch of post space...there's no way to blow the whistle consistently.  You have your choice of ten fouls or none every trip down the court.  With that kind of range you're going to see some variance. 

Given the combination of grinding and passion, I'm actually surprised the referees have done as good of a job as they have.

During the three regular-season games these two teams played the Blazers shot 17, 21, and 24 foul shots for an average of 20.7 per game.  Portland attempted 24.2 free throws per game on average, so they were well below their usual mark against Houston.

During those same games the Rockets shot 23, 22, and 26 for an average of 24 foul shots per game.  Houston attempted 23.2 free throws on average, so they were slightly above their usual mark when facing Portland. 

Both teams held opponents to 21-ish free throws per game in the regular season, the Rockets being 2nd in the league in that category, the Blazers 4th.  Some of this was due to pace, but for the most part you could say that neither team gave up free points much.

In the first two games of this series Portland attempted 16 and 36 foul shots.  That averages out to 26, 2 more than the Blazers' season average and 5+ more than the Blazers' average against the Rockets.  It's impossible to escape the night-and-day difference between those two numbers, however.  16 was well below any reasonable expectation, 36 well above.  The average doesn't tell the story here.  The Blazers got destroyed in Game 1 because, among other things, they couldn't draw foul shots.  The Blazers won Game 2 because, among other things, they drew an enormous number of foul shots.

In the first two games the Rockets have attempted 28 and 32 foul shots, averaging to 30 per game.  This is almost 7 above their season average and 6 above their average against the Blazers.  Their free throw production has been more consistent.  It's also been consistently higher (so far, anyway) than their normal production.

I don't think it's possible to come to a hard and fast conclusion based on what we've seen so far other than overall the Rockets have done better than the Blazers in this area.  They've had more free throws and been farther above their averages both on the season and against the opponent.  Make of that what you will.  Blazer fans will probably go, "Aha!" even as Rockets fans say, "Of course."  Either way, we'll need to see more games before we can argue about it intelligently or even know for sure how it's factoring in to victory or defeat.

As you consider, especially as a Blazer fan, I would suggest that the Rockets have a few natural advantages that are going to tip things their way.

Houston has the better defensive reputation and execution.  Most fouls are called on the defensive end.  The refs are going to accept some things from the Rockets as a matter of course that they wouldn't expect, and thus wouldn't let slide, from the Blazers.  When Ron Artest bumps somebody it could be a foul but it could also be because he's a huge, gifted defender.  When Nicolas Batum does the same thing it's probably just a foul.

Houston also has more experience in the league and in the recent playoffs.  The officials have seen them before.  They've seen them in this situation before.  Nobody knows how the Blazers are going to react.  That uncertainty opens a window of doubt.  That window of doubt is always bad when whistle-blowing decisions are being made.

When there's doubt (and there's plenty in this series because of the reasons we discussed above) the officials will tend to give the benefit of that doubt to the player with the most star value on the floor.  In this case that's Yao Ming by a mile.  Part of it is the long-standing star system, which has eased over the past few years but isn't gone yet and tends to return strongly in the playoffs.  Part of it is just human nature.  If the Blazers lose and Brandon Roy fouls out--let alone Joel Przybilla or Greg Oden--nobody makes a peep.  It just doesn't get mentioned except maybe as a small game-flow comment in the highlight packages for the night.  If Yao Ming fouls out and the Rockets go on to lose it's the topic of discussion whenever somebody mentions the game.  Half the audience is up in arms.  Commentators are debating whether it should have gone down that way.  It's unexpected, and therefore more noteworthy.  So...if you do your job one way the complaints and negative notice are limited.  If you do your job another way people are talking about you for days--perhaps months if it's perceived to cost a team the series--and the negative notice is prominent.  After a while that's not even going to be a decision for you.  Doing it the less controversial way is simply going to become the way it's done.

Note that this isn't going to make an official ignore a clear foul or change a decision that's otherwise obvious.  Nobody is cheating here or fixing games.  However the wiggle-room decisions are simply more likely to tip the Rockets' way for all of these reasons and Portland fans and players have got to expect that.  In a couple years hopefully it's different for the Blazers, as they will be more established and have more star power.  For now, you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, "This is the NBA."

Despite this, the Blazers need not concede the officiating battle to the Rockets.  Remember we said that these factors only play in when there's doubt.  The Blazers must take it upon themselves to leave as little doubt as possible.  The one truth that trumps all of these by a mile is that the clearest and most frequently whistled infractions come from penetration.  Almost always the team that gets inside the most aggressively and quickly will get the benefit of the calls. 

Houston has a couple guys who can take the ball off the dribble but for the most part they're a post-and-kick team.  Their offense runs best through Yao and his shooting sidekicks.  Neither option maximizes charity tosses.

The Blazers, on the other hand, prosper when Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and sometimes Travis Outlaw handle the ball.  All are capable of getting it inside, even though that's not always their priority.  You don't have to change Portland's offense to penetrate, you just have to play it more aggressively.

The Blazers need to fix this firmly in their minds.  The only way to overcome whatever handicap may exist is to aggressively get the ball in the paint and force the referees to make calls in your favor.  That means absorbing contact.  That means finishing at the rim instead of pulling up short.  That means being persistent even if things don't work out in your favor the first time.

If the Blazers become, as Charles Barkley has so graciously termed them, "A nice little jump-shooting team" then they are going to get a nice little round of applause for their effort as they end up losing 4-1 or 4-2 in this series.  If the Blazers are serious about winning in Houston, let alone winning 4 of 7, they must not leave their fate in anyone's hands but their own.  That includes the guys in grey.  And that means stepping up their foul-drawing game to a different level.

If the outcome isn't favorable people will no doubt still complain.  But honestly you might as well complain about the rain falling.  It is what it is.  If you're going to go out in it, you better be prepared.  If you don't bring an umbrella then it's no use griping about your dripping forehead.

In other words, if people are justified in their complaints and officiating really does play the deciding role in this series, whose fault will that really be?

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)