Sometimes being an NBA official is tough. But this time, referee Michael Smith had a gimme.
About five feet in front of him, the Celtics' Kevin Garnett delivered an offensive foul combination platter to Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala: One part moving pick, another part flying elbow.
Now that's a foul.
Replays only made things clearer. Later, even Charles Oakley -- a high priest of physical play -- would take to Twitter to chastise anyone who'd question the call.
Smith did the obvious thing: He blew his whistle.
And that surprised the hell out of everybody.
Broadcasters could scarcely hide their astonishment. It was a matter of seconds before the Boston crowd was apoplectic, chanting in unison a word that begins "bull" and ends unprintable. Even back in the TV studio, where the mood was less partisan, there was little support for Smith's call, which was said to have been to the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
The reason? The game was on the line.
The Celtics were trailing by three with 10 seconds left. With Smith's whistle, the Celtics went from living on the prayer of a tying 3 to doomed.
It was one of the more obviously correct calls imaginable. But it befuddled so many because there's an idea out there that referees ought not decide games.
Even Iguodala was surprised. Garnett hit him so hard the Sixer said his ribcage still hurt a day later. Iguodala said on the NBA Today podcast that when he heard the whistle, in that pressure-packed moment, he assumed it had nothing to do with the blow he had suffered, saying he "actually thought the whistle was for something else."
Which is amazing, if you think about it. Iguodala knows the rules, and he knows Garnett broke them. He also knew Smith was standing right there.
But Iguodala also knows this: "In that situation, they always say you can't have a call determine the game."
The NBA would insist playcalls are the same all game long. And the NBA is a decade into going to some trouble -- inspired, sources say, by a private and public campaign by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- to make it that way.
But it's a stretch to say that's what's happening on the court. Players certainly believe they have more leeway late in games, and there's evidence referees swallow whistles. For instance, the 2011 book "Scorecasting" found offensive fouls are 40 percent less likely to be called in overtime, compared to the first 48 minutes -- a trend that would explain the broad surprise at Smith's call.
In 2008, the NBA's independent investigator Lawrence Pedowitz published his report on refereeing in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal.
He included a section on "old" vs. "new" refereeing styles:
In an effort to improve both actual and perceived referee performance, the NBA, during the past six years, has tried to move toward a clearly articulated refereeing philosophy that adheres strictly to a literal and consistent interpretation of the rules. Previously, referees were inclined to employ an approach that allowed for more discretion. That approach -- which was also aimed at getting calls right -- varied somewhat with the circumstances of the game.
The approach has been described to us as the “art of refereeing” or “game management,” and has aspects of common sense, a desire not to interrupt the flow of the game (thereby showcasing the talent of the players), and rough justice.
Then Pedowitz listed examples gleaned from his interviews with every official, including:
Referees might avoid calling a foul on a play with significant contact at the end of a close game, consistent with the view that players rather than referees should determine a game’s outcome.
We all get what this means -- referees want to tread carefully, to have light impact. But even that is not real. When there's a hard foul late in a close game, referees don't really have an option of not deciding the game. They can essentially call it by the book and decide the game for the fouled team, or call something less and decide it for the other team. (The band Rush knows all about this: "If you choose not to decide you still have made the choice.")
For instance, referees decided for the Sixers and Celtics in getting those teams out of the first round.
If any two teams know the power of the old way of refereeing, where referees issue only small punishments late, it's these Sixers and these Celtics. Both teams won their first-round series with some old-fashioned crunch time referee timidity.
On video, Spencer Hawes' foul of Omer Asik at the end of the Sixers' series-clinching Game 6 was inseparable from all kinds of plays that have been whistled flagrant. It took a massive amount of force to keep the massive, open and full-speed Asik from even attempting a shot. Hawes put everything he had into yanking Asik sideways from the base of his neck, throwing him to the ground with no hope of scoring.
But even though referees were there with a great view of everything, only a regular foul was called. The city of Chicago isn't the only place people believe that decision wasn't rooted in the rulebook -- which would support the flagrant -- but in the reality that there were seven seconds left in a game the Bulls led by one. A flagrant would have given the Bulls the lead, free throws and the ball. A flagrant would have "decided the game," or darned close.
Letting players decide the game has a dark counterpart in these situations, too: A less violent foul would not have worked. That close to the hoop, with an offensive player that open, any normal foul would have let Asik win the game by finishing at the rim, putting the Bulls up three with a free throw still to shoot. This oddity of NBA rules, and their enforcement, forced Hawes to make his attack a particularly violent one.
It's odd that breaking the rules by fouling ever helps a team win. It's nuts that there are cases like this where throwing the opponent wildly off balance is the only way to win.
Of course you know what happened. It worked beautifully. Hawes' foul was, arguably, the play of the Sixers' season. Asik couldn't get a decent shot off. He missed both free throws. The Bulls didn't get the ball back, because no flagrant was called. Iguodala got the rebound, drove hard to the hoop, was fouled by Asik and won the game for the Sixers at the line.
But the story doesn't end there.
The Sixers retreated to their locker room to savor the win and gather their belongings for a trip to the second round. On the locker room television, the Hawks and Celtics were fighting for the right to face the Sixers next.
The Celtics were up two points with 3.1 seconds left -- the Hawks were inbounding under their own hoop, praying to tie the game. In Philadelphia, Hawes was watching.
Two things happened. First Celtic Marquis Daniels held Hawk Al Horford, rather blatantly. It's to referee Bill Kennedy's credit that he called anything. But replays show the hold happened before the ball had been inbounded, and the NBA would later admit the call came late. This was a particular point of emphasis from the league to the referees a few years ago. When the foul occurs before the ball is inbounded, as this clearly did, the correct call is one free throw for the Hawks, and then the ball out of bounds again. That would have been a huge help to the Hawks' chances, in a game they really lost by one point (before an intentional foul). Instead it was ruled the foul was after the ball had been inbounded, giving the Hawks no relief at all: Once again they got the ball out of bounds.
Whether Kennedy didn't see the sequence of events, or didn't want to have too big an impact, is unknown.
But what is known is that he had a front-row seat for the next play. The bigger, stronger Horford caught the ball by the hoop, and Daniels was faced with the same no-brainer of a choice Hawes had. He was beat, with no way of winning by following the rulebook, or making a basketball play.
So Daniels grabbed Horford around the shoulders and hurled him earthbound. The Hawes foul looked more like a flagrant than this one, but it was certainly not a play on the ball. Kennedy called a regular foul. Horford missed one of two free throws and the Celtics advanced to meet the Sixers.
Credit both Daniels and Hawes with great, game-saving plays that are in the interest of their teams -- but not their league.
There is only one alternative to referees deciding games. Iguodala: "That means anything goes."
That's what Garnett, Hawes and Daniels were all counting on.
Otherwise, why would Garnett -- one of the NBA's most respected veterans, a champion and a professional who knows all the little particulars of winning -- put his team in jeopardy with such a reckless play, right in front of a referee, in such a moment?
It's not like he tripped. He took a calculated risk even though, as he'd later admit, he had been warned in the same game about such plays.
Imagine the outrage if, say, JaVale McGee had done the same thing in the second quarter. A chorus of pundits would sing of his ignorance. But this was Garnett, and it's clear he wasn't being dumb at all. He was being brilliant. He was playing with the assumption Smith simply would not doom the Celtics with his whistle, which gave him a special way to get his teammate Paul Pierce wide open for a game-tying 3.
Garnett is not being called a fool. Instead, the referee is being questioned.
Garnett was playing very well under the old way of refereeing. But the new way is better. Way better, in fact, because it rewards the best basketball plays, as opposed to hardest fouls.