I give NBA commissioner Adam Silver all the credit in the world for his efforts at transparency. Rather than hide from accountability and controversy, his league routinely confronts the confusion of missed calls and mistakes that so often help decide outcomes, and does so in fine detail.
The bizarre final sequences of the second Western Conference semifinal game between the Spurs and Thunder Monday night were only the latest opportunity for the NBA’s officiating arm to release a public accounting of what went wrong. And it was a lot — five different errors that helped Oklahoma City escape with a one-point win.
Let’s not open another tedious forensic investigation of each call with frame-by-frame evidence and case precedent. Instead, I want to look at the larger picture: what we desire from the game at the most important times and at the highest level. It’s not just about what has to be right, but what we want to watch.
Mostly lost in the discussion of rules and regulations was what happened for most of that game. A dynastic power boasting all-time great players and the best coach in the game’s history faced two of the most dynamic and telegenic young athletes in the league. Superstars waged a physical battle that demanded multiple contested shots be made. Defense helped and recovered and helped again, but talented scorers soared over and around the tangle of bodies. It was thrilling, everything we ask of playoff basketball.
Games develop their own rhythm. The limiting factor is often simply the officials’ choice to not sweat the small stuff and let the players play. It happens not so much as the result of calculation or forethought, but organically as the action unfolds. For years the NBA has operated with the tacit understanding that certain transgressions require a higher threshold to become fouls in the playoffs. The arrangement works, even as it raises perfectly fair questions.
David Stern spent a career trying to robotize officiating, promoting standardization over personality as he tried to combat longstanding worries about favoritism and conspiracy. The increased use of video replay has been a logical next step. It ensures fairness, even as it has further slowed the end-game situations already bogged down by repeated strategic stoppages. It’s also created new debates about the application of certain rules.
But officials are still humans charged with overseeing things. We have to admit that a game called tightly, to every last letter of the law, just isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as one that allows enough leeway for some insanely talented basketball players to do what they do.
Back when the working press could sit courtside for playoff games (or any game, for that matter), we were privy to the conversations among referees, coaches and players. The exchanges shed light on how a balance could be struck between getting things right and letting the game decide for itself. As each episode of a grinding series wore on, all kinds of interpretations and understandings happened in real time. Players pled respective cases during timeouts or while jogging back on defense, and refs said things like “Do that again and I’m calling it” or “Next time that’s a foul if you don’t set your feet. Watch it.” Every game evolved in a different way, with it ideally being called equally for both teams regardless of that game’s specific tone.
It can work, even in the age of instant video.
Three people with whistles simply cannot consistently keep up with 10 athletic aliens. And there may never be a satisfying way to ensure that every correct call gets made, particularly when we don’t want to consume a sport in which that happens. It’s that underlying truth that can never be reconciled.