Talk to the people who supervise NBA referees, and they'll tell you fans are just mean, with all their referee stereotypes. Superstar calls, make-up calls, referees swallowing their whistles in crunch time ... the story is that those either don't happen, or happen far less than everyone seems to think they do.
Last night's Jazz vs. Nuggets game demonstrated both sides of that argument.
On the one hand, the biggest-name star in the building, Carmelo Anthony, fouled out of a home game for the kind of contact often goes unpunished, on a play that according to the Associated Press was a blown call. (UPDATE: Photographic evidence.) If that's not proof that the referees don't protect superstars, what is?
This is not the game, however, to put those stereotypes to rest entirely.
It was a fairly tightly called game -- as Kevin Arnovitz points out, it set some records for fouls called. But at the same time, it was a very physical contest with notable no-calls, some of which fit the old stereotypical patterns.
For instance, on the idea that small fouls are unlikely to be called on big plays, consider that twice in the final minute, Chauncey Billups got open to launch 3-pointers that could have tied the game. One is above, the other is on this video, which is quite amazing. Billups gets open with two football plays. For the first, Deron Williams looks like a pass-rusher, trying to get around the offensive lineman known as Kenyon Martin, who uses hands, strength and lateral movement -- all things that aren't supposed to be part of setting a pick -- to impede the defender.
That's nothing compared to the 3 at the final buzzer. Kyle Korver is hounding Billups down the open middle of the floor. It's going to be a contested 3 -- until near mid-court, Martin throws his body, elbow-first, into Korver, sending the Jazz man sprawling. It's brilliantly executed, if you're into that kind of thing. If Billups had hit the 3, Martin would deserve the game ball for this play alone. But in the first quarter, that's a foul every time.
Early in the game, I thought to myself: Let's see what kind of treatment Kyrylo Fesenko gets. Players and coaches will talk about having to earn the respect of referees. The league will tell you referees call it as they see it, and it does not matter if it's LeBron James or some kid straight out of the D-League. If the league is right, Fesenko -- a bit player thrust into the spotlight by a series of Jazz injuries -- would have no trouble getting calls.
A few minutes in, Nugget big man Nene powered his way to the hoop, where he was confronted by Fesenko, in position with long outstretched arms. Fesenko's hand is in place to make the block, but then his entire arm mysteriously disappears from the trajectory of Nene's dunk. Rewind again, and it's clear why: Nene's off-arm chopped Fesenko's out of the way. There's plenty of contact. In slow-motion, it's almost comical. No call from the referees, however. Hard to fight the feeling a more established player might have drawn an offensive foul.