Here’s the reality right now for the NBA: The officiating is the biggest story in the league, temporarily bigger than the new-look Heat or Gilbert Arenas‘ latest gaffe or the near-dead Carmelo Anthony trade talks. On Thursday, the league’s crackdown on technical fouls trumps all of it.
The issue has been simmering since the league unveiled the new rules late last month, and it bubbled up Monday because of strange technicals against Jermaine O’Neal and George Hill. But few saw those calls, and fewer really cared.
That changed Wednesday night, when the officials in charge of the Celtics-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden called four technicals in a 17-second span in the second quarter. There was legitimate buzz around this game, the home debut of Amar’e Stoudemire and the first chance for most New York fans to see Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1 center from Russia whom the Knicks signed in free agency. The Celtics even played their A-team after trotting out their B- and C-lines the night before in Philadelphia.
But by the four-minute mark in the second, Kevin Garnett was gone — ejected — and all anyone was asking was: Is this really good for the game?
Let’s start with the tape. Things unraveled at the 4:39 mark in the second quarter when O’Neal tried to battle Mozgov from behind for a rebound. O’Neal used his right arm to push off Mozgov’s left armpit, and the force of O’Neal’s shove moved Mozgov under the hoop. Zach Zarba, an official standing about three feet from this action, whistled O’Neal for some combination of over-the-back and shoving. It was probably a good call.
O’Neal turned to Zarba, frowning, and said something. What he said was not enough to merit a technical. But then O’Neal took a few steps up the court alongside Zarba, chatting calmly, with his left hand raised as if to take Zarba around the shoulders for an in-close chat.
That was too much, and Zarba T’d up O’Neal.
Around this time, Garnett was standing near the scorer’s table. He said something to another official, Kane Fitzgerald, and it’s impossible to tell on tape exactly what Garnett said to earn his first T. But what’s clear is this: Garnett reacted to that first T by walking toward Fitzgerald and mouthing off. Rajon Rondo even put his hand on Garnett’s chest, trying to hold him back from Fitzgerald. Too late. Garnett was gone.
The reaction has been unanimous — almost. Mike Breen and Walt Frazier, calling the game for the MSG Network, said the referees had gone too far, that O’Neal should be able to have a civil conversation with Zarba, and that fans pay good money to see stars like Garnett. Ray Allen was laughing. Mike D’Antoni smirked on the sideline.
But there are those who support the league and the officials, and there argument is this: Why can’t NBA players just shut up? Why can’t they walk away? Do they think they are going to persuade refs to change foul calls? There are only certain types of calls officials might change because of a combination of player reaction and replay availability: clock-based situations, such as buzzer-beaters; out-of-bounds calls (think of the Finals last season); and block/charge calls, where officials will sometimes get together after one of them makes an initial call.
But a run-of-the-mill foul? You’re not getting that changed, and arguing about it often makes players look silly. (Hi, Tim Duncan.)
The problem, though, is that it is impossible for the league to maintain any in-game consistency on this issue. On the Knicks’ possession immediately before the parade of technicals Wednesday, Stoudemire drove on Garnett, converted a tough lay-in and then glared at the official, screaming “And one!” and making the “and the foul” gesture with his right hand.
No technical. Why not? There is no good reason.
Ken Berger of CBS Sports attended one of the sessions in which league officials explained the changes to members of the media. Here is his understanding of the new edict:
Demonstrative and continuous displays of emotion will not be tolerated under the new rules. Players will be allowed to display emotion in the heat of the moment, as long as it isn’t over the top – and as long as they get under control and walk away.
To be clear, this is Berger’s language, not the league’s. But good luck interpreting it. What counts as “over the top”? What about “demonstrative” or “continuous”? O’Neal was not demonstrative in his protest over the initial foul call Wednesday, but his protest did continue for several seconds. Should that merit a T? Stoudemire’s “And one” demands — and there were at least two in this game — were clearly demonstrative but not continuous. Should that merit a T?
You could argue that such inconsistency is inevitable when any entity sets up a new enforcement regime, and that the inconsistencies will disappear once the standards are gradually made clear. I’m not convinced that’s the case. There are just too many scenarios in an NBA game, too many variables — too many types of calls and player reactions, an infinite list of gestures that may or may not be T-worthy – and officials who are human will react differently to different players across different circumstances.
Of course, inconsistency with technical foul calls is nothing new. Rasheed Wallace was allowed to behave like a jerk in some games and not in others. But if the league is serious about this new crackdown, confusion of the type that reigned at MSG on Wednesday will appear often — and affect the outcome of regular-season games