TENSIONS BETWEEN REFEREES and NBA teams have intensified yet again and pushed the situation toward a boiling point during the most important time of the season.
This is a cats-and-dogs matter. Frustration with officiating will continue as long as the game itself. But the escalation over the past month has been damaging and, in some ways, disappointing.
Stephen Curry pointing into an official's face after hitting a game-tying shot. DeMar DeRozan heaving a ball across the court at a referee and having it sail into the stands. Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks crossing every line and entering the referees' locker room after a playoff loss to protest a call. These have happened in just the past few weeks.
There were more, but I'm specifically bringing up Curry, DeRozan and Marks because they are all high-character people with excellent reputations and a history of good leadership. All of the incidents were unacceptable not just for the actions, but for the example they are setting for their own teams.
The officials, no doubt feeling cornered, are pushing back. There have been 11 ejections already in this postseason. Certainly this total was padded because of the intensity in the Nets-Sixers series, but the officials are on pace to smash the record for the most ejections in the past 30 years. There were just three in all of last year's playoffs. Each case is different -- some ejections have been for flagrant foul 2s, meant to protect players -- but the numbers suggest referees are on a bit of an edge.
These are warning signs. If this keeps up, it could lead to a black eye for the league. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets might be on the verge of the most important playoff series of the year, and both teams have a long history with officials.
Scott Foster, the referee who rates among the best in the game and has a long, tense history with the Rockets and Chris Paul, is probably going to work in the series. It was Foster at whom DeRozan chucked a ball last week. If a playoff game or series goes sideways because of a player-referee tiff, there are no winners. None.
The way Marks, for example, was cheered by his coaches, players and even his team owner for actions that clearly breach the line is exactly the point. There are plenty of ways to express displeasure and make some sort of stand for your organization without acting so irresponsibly. What's the next step? Confronting the officials on the court?
It's not just Marks. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has become the NBA's conscience, using the capital his immense success has provided to become an activist for causes within the league and outside of it.
He is one of the most valuable and powerful voices in American sport. The NBA is fortunate to have him. Just this past week, Kerr used his influence to warn of the danger Russell Westbrook's dismissive tone in interviews could have on the league's popularity.
Yet Kerr seems to have a blind spot when it comes to officiating. Not only does he often lose his compass with officials, saying things and acting like he never would in any other setting, Kerr also has allowed his high-profile team to run amok in this space. The way the Warriors treat officials at times has been unfitting of their place in the history of the league. This is an organization that does practically everything the right way and admirably, which makes this flaw all the more disheartening.
Absolutely, the Warriors have gotten the raw end of whistles. A couple of the calls that triggered an outburst by Curry and some of his teammates in Minneapolis last month were frustrating to handle in the heat of the moment. It might be one of the reasons the official at the center of the issues that night, Marat Kogut, was left off the 36-referee playoff roster.
But for progressive leaders of a progressive team in a progressive league, they're leading the charge backward in this important area. In no league, in the U.S. at least, are the referees treated as poorly by players and coaches as they are in the NBA.
Is it a point of pride for the NBA that coaches feel there's an advantage within games to outrageously protest calls in order to influence future ones? No. Is it a great sign that sometimes players and coaches purposely attempt to get technical fouls for strategic purposes? No.
Is the annual rite of coaches and players plotting public comments to draw fines postgame -- to the point where sometimes there are organizational meetings prior to news conferences to discuss it -- and influence the next game a good trend? No.
I've talked to people across the league about this issue. Players, coaches, referees, union leadership and the league office. Everyone has their position and their theory.
I've been told the experience level of the referees has dwindled with a number of veteran retirements or reassignments, and that younger officials have thinner skin and won't allow a healthy dialogue. And a couple more of the top officials are planning retirement or transfers after this season, by the way.
I've been told commissioner Adam Silver has ushered in a more player-friendly administration, with his discipline czar, Kiki VanDeWeghe, going lighter on players than previous men in his job. Things that got you suspended under David Stern draw fines now. Things that previously got you fined are let go, and the result is an emboldening of the players.
I've been told this generation of players are bigger whiners than their processors, with the blame for it falling on everything from the AAU system to social media to video games.
I've been told there are more replays and video sharing, and so when referees do make mistakes, the mistakes are magnified. Just as the last-two-minute reports, aka L2Ms, only push officials' mistakes into a fresh news cycle when nothing can be done about them. And it hurts officials' reputations.
I've been told short memories cause issues. For example, the Warriors (and plenty of fans) flipped out during that game in Minnesota because Kevin Durant was called for wrapping up Karl-Anthony Towns as he went to the basket in the final second. Last weekend, the Nets' Jarrett Allen was wrapped up by the Sixers' Tobias Harris and it wasn't called, a mistake acknowledged by the league. The howling was equal for both -- everyone wants it both ways.
No one has the answer.
Here is what I know: In my 16 years covering the NBA, the referees have never been fitter, more diverse or held to a higher standard than they are now. And I've never seen as much acrimony as is going on.
Clearly, this is complicated. Obviously, the stakes are so high that reasonable people are driven mad by these subjective decisions. This is a real problem.
I don't know what the answer to it is; there are a lot of experienced people who have been working on it. What I do know is it's going to take some leadership to dial this down, and I'm not seeing a whole lot of that right now.
THIS HAS BEEN a lost decade for the Phoenix Suns. Everyone knows this. After firing another coach, Igor Kokoskov, the wound is reopened again.
But for the sake of the Suns' fans, let's pass on the preamble about Kokoskov having no point guard and a super-young team and being totally hung out to dry, and instead note that there's another story developing here. Instead of rehashing the Suns' draft mistakes, let's look at what they do have. That is two really good young players in Devin Booker, who is an unnamed All-Star because he's smothered by a dysfunctional franchise, and Deandre Ayton, who put up numbers this season that would've won him Rookie of the Year in many seasons past.
Their books are clean. Even with Booker's max salary coming on next season, they have good salary-cap space with which to work. Even if they elect to re-sign restricted free agent Kelly Oubre, they still have good flexibility in the summer of 2020 as well.
And on May 14, they are there with the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks with the best odds to get a top lottery pick that could add a third potential star to that group. Meanwhile, they hired Jeff Bower, a highly respected veteran with a long list of contacts, to run their front office with James Jones, a highly respected former player, settled as the GM.
Amid all the broken promises, false starts, self-inflicted wounds, ownership gaffes and, in a more recent development, alleged bribes to politicians, it's hard to genuinely say that maybe now is when the Suns finally have a real chance to turn it around. But here we go -- with these few bright spots (including rookie Mikal Bridges), at least you can see how they are set up for it.
Top coaching and front-office talent has avoided the Suns because the organization has been a career graveyard, which is why firing Kokoskov was risky. But it's possible the young stars, plus Bower's and James' connections, could at least give Phoenix a reasonable chance of getting someone with the chops to change the culture.
Phoenix is a slumbering basketball market. The league is a better place when the Suns are good -- for decades, they were -- and someday they will wake up. Some believe it will be after Robert Sarver sells. But there's a flicker there -- you can see it.
GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO HAS hammered the Celtics over the past two seasons. He averaged 31 points and 11 rebounds against Boston this season after putting up 30 points and 10 rebounds last season. In last year's seven-game playoff series, he averaged 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists and shot 57 percent.
Obviously, part of Celtics coach Brad Stevens' game plan is to let Antetokounmpo go to a certain extent and try to slow down the supporting cast. Khris Middleton, for example, shot 37 percent against the Celtics this season and got to the free throw line only five times in 99 minutes as Boston honed in on him.
The stage is set for this postseason to be Antetokounmpo's explosion onto the scene, and he's already off to a stirring start in smashing the Pistons in the first round for his first series victory. If the Celtics stick to their past strategy, these next two weeks are there for him to have a transformative series.