There is a segment of Boston fans who argue—rather loudly—that the officials aided the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3, a game Cleveland won by 29 points. These fans concede Cleveland ultimately won the game because they played great basketball, but they also argue that several calls that went against Boston in the 1st and early 2nd quarters killed any chance for a Boston comeback. Even John Krolik of Cavs The Blog wrote in his Game 3 recap that the “whistles [were] not going [Boston's] way” early in Game 3.
Some of these fans chalk the allegedly bad calls up as a coincidence; others claim they are evidence that David Stern and the NBA has fixed this series in Cleveland’s favor or in hopes that it becomes a seven-game epic.
This is, of course, a radical claim to make.
Let’s dispense with the empty rhetoric and actually, you know, examine some of the calls and non-calls that are infuriating Boston fans:
1) KG’s first foul, 11:07, 1st quarter:
There appears to be some pretty obvious contact between Kevin Garnett’s right arm and Shaq’s head/neck/shoudler area.
To me, this is a foul. If there’s a gripe here, it’s that Paul Pierce fouled Shaq earlier in the play—and perhaps fouled him intentionally—only to have the refs allow the game to go on. KG has been a more valuable offensive player in this series than has Pierce; losing Garnett to foul trouble was probably a tougher loss for Boston to bear in Game 3.
2) KG’s first basket, 9:52:
Freeze the picture just after KG releases the ball, and it appears Jamison’s left arm definitely makes contact with KG’s shooting elbow. KG certainly thought he deserved an And-One here; he yelled at the ref as he ran back on defense.
Eh. I wonder how often this sort of contact happens and goes un-called when it really doesn’t effect the trajectory of the shot. It’s probably a foul, but I’m not outraged.
3) Non-call on Paul Pierce, 7:06:
C’s fans have a legitimate gripe here. This is a shooting foul.
4) Perk’s 2nd foul, 5:47:
Only a few of the complainers have mentioned this one, but I wanted to include it anyway. Perk goes straight up to challenge LeBron, but LBJ is agile enough to shift to his left in the air. Perk appears to bump LeBron at the hip level as LBJ is airborne. I have no problem with this call.
5) KG’s 2nd foul, 5:10 (Note: slow-mo starts at about :20)
This is one of the two or three calls that has everyone furious, and it undoubtedly changed the momentum of the game. Boston was down 18-8 when KG went out after this call; they were down 43-25 when he returned.
Honestly? I don’t get the outrage. To my eyes, KG makes contact with Jamison’s arm when the pass comes in and again with Jamison’s chest as Jamison is falling to the floor.
I wouldn’t bet everything I own that KG made contact with Jamison on the catch; it’s difficult to tell even on slow-mo, but I’m pretty sure he did. And he clearly knocks Jamison in the chest later in the play.
Would some officials have ignored the latter contact, with Jamison already stumbling? Maybe.
But this is happening in full speed, and if you can’t understand why officials watching this play—at full speed—thought there was a foul here, I don’t know what to tell you.
Side note: The refs could have whistled Ray instead of KG here, though it looks to me like Allen misses Jamison when swiping for the ball. So both of KG’s early fouls could have gone to other players. It happens. It’s called bad luck.
6) 4:58: Rondo posts up Mo Williams:
There is a lot of contact here, and fans are angry Rondo didn’t get the call in light of a play that happened about a minute after this one (we’ll get there shortly).
Look closely, though, and it appears that Rondo initiates a lot of this contact. Mo is bodying him up, but he’s allowed to have one forearm on Rondo’s back. It’s Rajon that knocks Mo with his left arm to create a little space (and a little contact). And it’s Rajon that leans in to try and create more contact on the shot.
Is there contact? Yes. Does Mo keep his body vertical? I’d argue he does.
You can tell Rondo is upset with the no-call; he glares at the ref after the shot goes in.
And I get why he’s mad. This is one of those 50/50 calls that offensive players get sometimes. But that’s the thing: It’s a 50/50 call. It’s not a no-brainer blown call, at least not to my eyes.
7) 3:54: Ray Allen “fouls” Antawn Jamison:
This foul came 64 seconds after the no-call on Mo Williams at the other end, so you can understand the grumbling.
To me, this is another 50/50 call. I’m pretty confident Ray Allen’s lower body/left arm bumps Jamison here. It’s not a big bump, and it doesn’t really disrupt Jamison’s shot. But there is contact. Sometimes a shooter gets this call, sometimes he doesn’t.
This time he did.
You can see a theme developing here: The 50/50 calls mostly went the Cavs way early; even John Krolik admitted as much in his recap. But this kind of stuff happens in NBA games. These plays happens at full speed, and refs are generally doing the best job they can on each individual play. The game is moving so fast and demands so much concentration that I don’t think refs are thinking of a call or non-call that happened two minutes ago while they decide whether the thing that is happening in front of them right now is a foul.
Also: I could easily find you a half-dozen examples from the 1st quarter alone of little bumps that could have, in theory, been called fouls on Boston. They are there; I saw them when I re-watched the 1st quarter. If anything, watching every possession for an eye toward possible foul calls just reinforces how difficult it is to officiate an NBA game. There is contact everywhere, all the time. Sussing out the real fouls is not easy.
To me, this is a case of not getting the breaks/calls and not a case of something more.
8. Big Baby’s illegal screen (3:40):
A big momentum changer, as it negated a Ray Allen three-pointer, and another legit gripe for C’s fans.
If there is one call/non-call decision that constantly infuriates me, it’s the illegal screen call. I wonder what percentage of NBA screens technically qualify as illegal by the letter of the law. How many screeners truly remain stationary for the duration of the screen?
That’s what makes this call against Baby tough to swallow. Does Davis move his left arm ever so slightly as Mo Williams runs by him? Yes, he does, though it’s hard to tell even in slow-motion whether he moves his arm as Williams makes contact with it or before Williams makes contact with it. But there are a dozen screens every game that are as “illegal” as this one. Perhaps Davis doesn’t help himself here by spreading his feet so wide apart, a strange-looking stance that may have caught the ref’s eye.
But I checked the NBA rulebook, and there is nothing in there about the width of a screener’s stance or how much space he can take up in a scenario like this one.
9) LBJ swats Big Baby into Bolivian (10:34, 2nd):
One commenter called this non-call the coup de grace. It certainly looks bad at full speed. We’ve got a violent LBJ arm swing and a large man subsequently falling to the floor. Perhaps a player of lesser stature gets whistled here.
But look at that clip again. That’s not just slow-motion; it’s my DVR’s slow-motion version of a slow-motion TV replay. It’s super slow-mo.
And you know what? Even in super slow-mo, I still wouldn’t bet my life savings that LeBron’s arm ever touches anything but the basketball. Would you? Here’s a still from the offending moment, when LBJ’s arm may have hit Baby’s after the initial contact with the ball:
There does appear to be some contact; Baby’s momentum clearly plunges a bit downward on LeBron’s follow through. How easy was that to see in real time? I have no idea.
But I would disagree with those who have characterized this play as LeBron “slamming” Glen Davis to the ground. To my eyes, that’s not what happened here. Still: It’s probably a missed call.
Add all of this up, and you can see why C’s fans are upset. Most of the 50/50 calls early in the game went Cleveland’s way. Even Cavs fans would probably concede that.
But most of them are 50/50 calls—judgement calls that are difficult to make in an instant and impossible to get right every time. (Hell, I’ve watched slow-mo replays of these plays a dozen times and I’m still not sure what the right call is on some of them). That’s bad luck, the sort of luck that evens out over time. It’s not evidence of a dark conspiracy against one of the league’s marquee teams—a TV ratings powerhouse the league never minds seeing late in the post-season.