Some of the loudest complaints during the Portland Trail Blazers’ 111-102 loss in Game 2 of their playoff series with the New Orleans Pelicans were not directed at Portland’s poor defense, spotty shooting, or intimidation at the mere sight of Anthony Davis. During the evening, the officiating crew of Zach Zarba, Sean Corbin, and John Goble missed a handful of calls which, while not outright costing Portland the game, added to the frustration level and sense of impotence that the loss brought. Since the topic generated so much tension, let’s explore a couple things about NBA officiating, with an eye towards the playoffs and Portland’s participation in them.
Everybody knows the truisms, “NBA referees aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty good,” and, “Calls eventually even out for both sides.” The first is obvious, the second usually accurate. But if you want to understand the NBA playoffs, neither is sufficient. Instead, you need to add a third one:
You thought that officiating was going to be fair?
Too bad. It isn’t.
At times, NBA refereeing has been manifestly unfair. If you think Game 2 of Blazers-Pelicans was bad, try going back to the Shaquille O’Neal / Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers teams of the early 2000’s. If the league wasn’t rigged back then, it might as well have been.
Even when things are more equal, every team suffers from the perception of unfair calls. No coach, player, or fan base ever thinks the plurality of calls go their way. The first thing Lakers fans did when Shaq and Phil Jackson left was start whining how biased the sudden lack of favoritism was.
If you wait to feel like you’re getting a fair shake before taking the game in hand, the game will never be in your hands.
Every team has a choice when confronting “unfair” calls: they can knuckle under to them, believe the league is biased against them, and lose, or they can control the situation to the best of their ability. Every player or coach outside of a Los Angeles Lakers uniform will need to do the latter rather than the former if they want to make any headway in the postseason.
Despite referees being independent agents, beyond either team’s direct control, they can be influenced. When you admit that the whistles are going to be unfair, giving up the false expectation of uniformity and justice, you start to realize that officiating tends to be unfair in predictable ways. That predictability becomes a lever, a road map to turning whistles into an asset rather than a detriment for your team.
Officials do not like to lead games. The concept is anathema...akin to determining outcomes, which for them undermines the integrity of the sport and their role in it. Referees want to follow the action, to react appropriately as the players lead. A preponderance of calls—missed or made—towards one team generally means that team is showing the officials what they need to see while the other is not doing so as successfully. The refs want somebody to lead; the only question is, who’s going to do it?
New Orleans has earned more foul shots in this series—and generally more credit during questionable situations—because they have been the aggressors, plain and simple. When they’ve gone to the rack, they’ve dunked the ball with authority or gotten as close as humanly possible. Perceiving the shadow of Anthony Davis like a circling hawk around the bucket, Portland’s guards (their main foul-drawers) have shied away from the rim, either passing or trying tricky reverse layups and double-clutches. That approach may be justified; Davis is a great player and plenty intimidating. But those two approaches do not look the same to observers or officials.
The Blazers have scored 92 points in the paint so far in this series, the Pelicans 94. Portland has been whistled for 35 personal fouls, New Orleans 34. The teams are nearly even in both categories. Yet the Pelicans have attempted 29 free throws against 22 for the Blazers and have appeared to get the benefit of the doubt in a few gray-area situations. Compare the way they’re driving, finishing, and hustling after the ball to the way most of the Blazers are...particularly Lillard and McCollum. The chasm isn’t world-spanning—we’re only talking 7 free throws and 3-4 possessions, not all of which led to scores—but there’s a difference. Perception could well be part of the gap.
When a player goes hard with mean intentions, looking like he’s going to cram the ball down somebody’s throat, then ends up short of the goal, the instinctive perception is that something must have stopped him. Among the obvious culprits: any defender in the area. That’s a potential foul, easy to call.
When a player goes tentatively, the assumption is that he’ll probably miss. When a bad outcome for the shooter is already assumed, failing to complete the shot does not add evidence to the case for a foul. In these situations, the defender is also perceived as having a natural advantage. A whistle is interpreted as bailing out the shooter, giving free points when none were forthcoming, reversing the normal course of things rather than sustaining it. Under those circumstances, a foul better be clear as day—with demonstrable contact inhibiting the shot attempt to the offensive player’s obvious disadvantage—otherwise the ref is not going to make the call. That has less to do with the rulebook and legitimacy of the infraction, more to do with the environment around the play and they way the players are demonstrating same.
The more effective, confident, dominating, and in control a team looks, the more calls are going to go their way. The opposite holds true as well.
Ironically, complaining to the officials, especially when you’re not otherwise looking dominant, can reinforce the perception that you’re not in control...that you need the refs to bail you out of your ineffectiveness as the other team is beating you. Complaining can work in the micro sense, especially if officials have blown a particular call. Advocacy is important. It’s never going to be a winning strategy, or even a good corrective, overall.
If you want to win, you have to walk, talk, look, and play like you own the court, like nothing is going to stop you from getting this bucket and winning this game. You cannot let anything, including officiating, make you deviate from that conviction. Consider James Harden. He’s ultra-talented and understands the game. Also he never acts like a call in his favor is a surprise...more like his birthright. He’s not an exception to the rule of aggression and confidence, he’s the ultimate expression of it.
The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, are not. Perhaps it’s personality, too much of an identity as the underdog, or a lack of veterans with playoff victories to show them the ropes. Whatever the cause, they often exhibit a sense of near-entitlement, as if they expect to be rewarded—or at least treated “fairly”, by their own definition—because they showed up.
This phenomenon will become evident if and when the Blazers end up losing this series, but still insist on describing the season and their future solely in terms of “3rd seed” and “49 wins” despite the fact that they were 2 games from the 8th seed, just 3 games from being out of the playoffs entirely, 7 teams in the West won between 46-49 games, and none of them were anywhere near the 58 wins of the second-place Golden State Warriors. How dare anyone not give them extra credit for earning that 3rd spot instead of the 6th, even if they didn’t win once they got there? For that matter, how dare Anthony Davis get in their driving lane? And how dare the officials not clearly see every call that should be made in their favor and blow all whistles accordingly? Nobody believes in us! Nobody gives us our due! What’s the matter with you refs and everybody but us?!?!?
And that is how you get distracted and get a playoff series ripped from you. That’s also how you end up fighting battles you can’t win against referees while losing against the opponent you might have actually beat if you weren’t secretly trying to fix everyone else except yourself.
If the Trail Blazers haven’t figured it out yet, they better soon: There is no invisible “THEY”, slighting them and screwing them out of your rightfully-anointed greatness. There is only the Blazers: the players in that locker room and administrators in that organization. Either they will take control of these games or somebody else will control it for them.
If the Blazers want to win this series, they better be willing to go body to body with Anthony Davis, jumping into his chest, taking away his shot-blocking ability, and drawing fouls on him. They better be willing to take more than half a step before Jrue Holiday blows by them on the drive. They better be able to get through a screen without sticking to it, to hit a shot with a defender closing, and to dunk the damn ball going to the rim instead of trying to lay it up like this was an ordinary game in early February.
So far in the series, these things are not happening with enough frequency to matter. The lack of contact, aggression, and control are obvious enough that behind the scenes, site staff members are legitimately considering the possibility that—along with the obvious Moe Harkless recovery, Evan Turner’s toe injury, and Jusuf Nurkic’s leg contusion—Damian Lillard himself might be ailing to the point he is not comfortable.
If, in the course of pursuing these things, the referees blow calls against you because the view wasn’t clear or the ref made a mistake or even because they’re screwing you over right to your face, you better be able to treat those calls like you treat everything else: just another obstacle to get over. No matter what, you keep throwing your body and everything you’ve got after that ball and that shot, until you teach the officials how to see you instead of letting yourself get defined by them.
Winning teams lead referees into the calls that need to be made rather than following them into oblivion. And if the refs never end up doing it, it becomes evident to everyone who sees it—not just loyal and biased fans, agents and confidants—what’s going on. Then THEY talk about how you were the better team and deserved more than you got. Then you look back at THEY, including the refs and the league, and say it doesn’t matter; you’ve got this next time, and every time.
As we said before the playoffs started, as we’ll probably explore more during the summer if the series result doesn’t reverse, this organization needs a serious culture change. That’s impossible to accomplish overnight, but it should start right now. The Blazers won’t get a second chance at the 2018 NBA Playoffs. They’re still alive in this series, though...still at the point where everything could look different with the turn of a single game. They need to come out with aggression, with an indomitable attitude, and with the idea that nothing will get in the way of winning Game 3.
In part, that attitude is going to show in how they perceive and treat the whistles blown against them. If they think they’re going to win this, or any, playoff series on the basis of fairness, they lost before it even started. When they teach the referees to make favorable calls by how they approach the game and the opponent, they’ll start to get more of them. Either way, the whistles will be a symptom of what they did or didn’t do, not the reason for it.
Game 3 tips at 6:00 PM, Pacific on Thursday.