The NBA's chief of referees defended his crew Friday in the wake of controversy over how it affected the outcome of the Oklahoma City Thunder's overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers a night earlier.
Monty McCutchen, a former longtime veteran official and the NBA's vice president of referee development and training, indicated in an appearance on ESPN's The Jump that those officials would be the first to step up and acknowledge they were wrong.
"We're accountable to our actions," McCutchen said. "We try to be excellent. We know we're going to be imperfect at times, you know. And this is one of those times."
The Blazers lost starting center Jusuf Nurkic near the end of regulation after skirmishes with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the second of which was sparked by a George elbow to Nurkic's head late in the fourth quarter. The play did not draw a flagrant call -- or a foul.
McCutchen told The Jump that it was indeed a missed call by the crew of Ed Malloy, Mark Lindsay and Mitchell Ervin. McCutchen added that it should have been an offensive foul and could have been a flagrant, although that was arguable and he didn't think it warranted that.
McCutchen said he took a close look at the play.
"I think that he's fighting through some tight traffic," McCutchen said of George. "His hand comes up off the ball, catches Jusuf in the face. I think it should have been an offensive foul. I don't think it's flagrant myself."
McCutchen further cited the need for referees to withstand the differing dynamics that result from when during the season a game is played -- including whether it's in the playoffs -- and how that could lower the bar on how games are called.
"This is the time of the year that's the best time of the year, for our players our coaches -- our passion is high," McCutchen said. "Our job as referees is to allow that passion up to the standards that we have, and then we have to adjudicate the game. Because it is important that we adjudicate the game the same this time of the year as we did in November so that our players and our coaches have the proper tools to know what to expect at this time of the year."
The Thunder won Thursday night's game 129-121. George chalked up the heated emotions and "bad blood" to the Northwest Division playoff race.
"Within those missed calls, what we're hoping is you can trust, even if you disagree about this call, specifically -- 'I still trust you Monty to get to good fairness, to get to integrity, to get to your work,'" McCutchen said.
Nurkic, after needing a pair of timeouts to collect himself after the elbow, was fouled during a battle to rebound a Damian Lillard miss. He thought George hit him again and confronted George forehead to forehead, and both players drew technicals -- Nurkic's second, ending his evening.
In the extra session, Nurkic's absence loomed large. The Thunder went repeatedly at Blazers backup Enes Kanter with pick-and-rolls, outscoring Portland 16-8 in overtime to win going away. Oklahoma City overcame Portland shooting a season-high 47 free throws, the most by any Thunder opponent this season. Lillard and George shot 20 free throws apiece, surpassing their career-high marks for attempts.
"Our officials are really honest about this," McCutchen said of key missed calls, before referring specifically to Thursday night's. "And they fill in the postgame report. They put in the game report this should be an offensive foul."
McCutchen went further in his defense of NBA officiating in his appearance on The Jump, saying the NBA was teaching the current crop of referees how to better forge and foster relationships with players.
"We do have that growth of the league, if you will," McCutchen said. "... The growth of our league has brought a scrutiny to our league that our young people are not only living under as officials -- we hired six this year. But not only are they learning the craft but they're doing it under scrutinized ways that I didn't when I was young. And they're also having to concurrently learn about how to interact with people. What we want them to know though is you are going to be with people for 30 years."
McCutchen said that in an attempt at innovation the NBA implemented a fourth official into G League games for a month last season. But the accuracy rates were similar to those of a three-official crew, he said.
"More isn't out of hand as a default better," McCutchen said.
He added that a fourth official had the potential to adversely affect floor spacing for a crew in a similar way that adding a sixth player would to the spacing of a team.
"The key to good officiating is a mechanics system," McCutchen said. "And we have to create a mechanics system that adds a benefit to that fourth official, as opposed to just 'Oh, four means better.'"
Information from ESPN's Kevin Pelton was used in this report.