Fouls don't make basketball better
The NBA released its last-two-minute report yesterday and confirmed that, yes, Kevin Durant stole Christmas by fouling LeBron in a crucial final possession of the Warriors' 99-92 win over the Cavs.
People on the internet were, predictably, very indignant about this, Jeff van Gundy on the ESPN broadcast went apoplectic for about the eighth time that game over an officiating mistake and - oh, God, why are we doing this again?
I understand people are very invested in outcomes, and in particular they want that outcome to be a Golden State loss, but it is disconcerting to see basketball fans who so desperately want foul calls and free throws and replay decisions and not, well, basketball plays to carry the day.
Let's consider the play on its face. The first foul comes as James starts his drive, a body bump that happens frequently on drives and that, while by the book a clear infraction, either shouldn't be one or at least definitely shouldn't be called in a situation where it would award free throws late in a close, hotly-contested game.
This is part of the judgment we afford referees. If you see their job as policing the game, then sure, they should whistle that and every other dumb little thing that technically counts as breaking the rules of basketball. If however you see their role more in managing a basketball game, maintaining a balance between fairness and flow, then in a case like this they are absolutely right to consider, and favor, context.
What about the second foul, then? Durant goes up to contest the shot, and hits LeBron's non-shooting arm in the course of reaching for a block (which he ultimately achieves as LeBron attempts to finish at the rim).
This is again, by the book clearly a shooting foul. But, again, it's not nearly so egregious that the refs should necessarily be awarding free throws for it in one of the most important moments of the game. LeBron clears out on liftoff with his left arm, the one Durant catches, and the ball remains in his right hand throughout the play, right until he tries to collect it again with both hands as he gets cleanly blocked.
That's a basketball play. It's not at all obvious Durant's contact with LeBron's non-shooting arm meaningfully impedes the actual shot. Now you can give free throws for it, sure, and maybe they should have, but it's also solidly in the grey area of where a by-the-rule foul meets the realities of playing basketball, and my position is basketball is better when whistles are swallowed in this grey area. If it was the other way around, LeBron blocking Durant, none of this controversy would exist.
Besides, this stuff evens out. The Cavs outshot the Warriors by 12 free throws until a couple intentionals at the end. And if you think that one noncall swung the game, what about:
1) This supremely stupid play from the second quarter, when Kevin Durant ran into Jeff Green's accidental, apparently not illegal screen, gets called for a foul on it, and somehow it results in LeBron shooting free throws.
2) This excessively silly call on Pat McCaw for a JR Smith flop that got him to the line in the fourth.
Those are just a couple examples, if you go through and watch the fourth you could micromanage well over half the possessions if you were so inclined. And that's kind of the point.
Warriors Derangement Syndrome has already given us stupid new closeout rules, after a leaguewide nonissue was deemed Extremely Important after Zaza Pachulia bumbled his way into aggravating Kawhi Leonard's ankle injury in last year's Western Conference Finals (an injury, it always seems forgotten, that was preexisting and once-already-aggravated when he stepped on David Lee's outstretched foot from the dang bench earlier in the game. People treated that play like Zaza took a bat to Kawhi as if he was Tonya Harding or something.)
It's fine to hate the Warriors and want them to lose, but the resulting hysteria winds up creating the illusion of a serious problem that doesn't exist that the NBA then Must Adress. And there are unintended consequences. Look at this play from earlier this month, when Anthony Tolliver is called for a foul against KD:
That shouldn't be a foul! There should be less fouls, generally. It's better for the pace and feel of a basketball game when refs use as much restraint as is reasonably possible. Free throws suck!
Strict interpretations of the rules don't make basketball better, Jeff van Gundy's righteous indignation doesn't make basketball better, fouls do not make basketball better.
This appeal-to-authority impulse is what sucked the life out of the NFL for the better part of two decades. Don't get so whipped up in Warriors-induced rage it happens to the NBA, too.