— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) April 29, 2019
OAKLAND — When Stephen Curry was asked on Monday about the vitriol that had come out of the Houston Rockets’ camp since the end of Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, he expressed his dismay that officiating had taken over the narrative of the teams’ fourth playoff series in five seasons.
Head coach Steve Kerr took the performance art route, flopping on San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion and asking for a foul before he sat down.
The NBA’s last-two-minutes report didn’t do anything to shift that discussion. The report, released Monday morning, showed that Curry had committed what would have been his sixth foul (if called) on a James Harden jumper with 1:10.6 left in the game. Had the foul been called, Curry would not have been on the floor to hit what wound up being the deciding 3-pointer with 25.9 seconds left to give the Warriors a five-point lead in the 104-100 win.
With two teams that went to seven games in the Western Conference Finals last season, Harden’s noted exploitation of contact rules and both Curry and Thompson dealing with ankle injuries, every advantage either team can get is an important one. The way that Golden State and Houston are going about Sunday’s officiating shows a great deal about both teams’ personalities, and how close this series could be.
Curry’s would-be foul on Harden — he moved laterally into Harden’s path, causing him to go out of bounds just before he fired off a 3-pointer with the Rockets down 100-95 — was one of two he should have had in the final two minutes. On Monday before practice, he watched film of all of Harden’s shots, to better understand what will and will not be called a foul.
“I saw those two plays,” Curry said. “It’s the same conversation for every NBA game … you can go possession-by-possession and say what was supposed to be a foul and what was not, and both teams, most nights, are going to have grievances on how things are called. At the end of the day, basketball decides the game.”
Just before the series began, a team source leaked to The Athletic that Houston had acquired play-by-play officiating reports for the entirety of each game of last year’s Western Conference Finals against Golden State. When the Rockets viewed the reports, they learned that the league had acknowledged missed foul calls that added up to 93 potential points for the Rockets. Beyond that, they learned that two of their 27 straight missed 3-pointers at the end of Game 7. The Warriors won that game 101-92, but the league ruled that Houston could have had 18 more points.
After Sunday’s Game 1, the attention was again squarely on the officials by Harden and by head coach Mike D’Antoni, who said that the officials came in and told him at halftime that they missed several foul calls on 3-point closeouts.
“That’s what they told me. They missed four of them,” D’Antoni said. “That’s 12 foul shots. So be it. They’re trying to do the best they can do. And obviously it was what it was.”
Ultimately, Golden State won despite turning the ball over 20 times, largely because of its defensive effort on Harden, and Kevin Durant’s ability to rise to the occasion with both Curry and Klay Thompson not at 100 percent (when asked how his ankle is feeling on Monday, Curry simply gave two thumbs up).
“The focus should be on two teams who played extremely hard,” said Kerr. “You don’t think there are 10 calls where we think we got fouled, too? This is how it goes, and every coach in the league will tell you the same thing.”
After the game, Harden said, “I just want a fair chance, man. Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it. And I’ll live with the results.”
With 10.1 seconds left, Harden drew Draymond Green into the air during his shot attempt, and extended his legs to make contact — a move typical of what Harden does to artificially draw contact and get to the free throwline. The officiating crew did not call a foul on Green, which the NBA office deemed the correct decision. Harden was fouled on 101 3-point attempts during the regular season, first in the NBA. The next-highest 3-point fouls taken? Orlando’s Terrence Ross, with 38.
As Green said in his postgame interview, “I’ve been fouled by James on a James 3-pointer before.”
The Rockets have taken exception to the no-calls on cut-unders by defenders, where they invade what shooters claim is their rightful landing zone. Harden cited the cut-under by Zaza Pachulia in 2017. The NBA changed the rules after Leonard sprained his ankle in Game 1 of that year’s Western Conference Finals. Harden has been known to jump forwards upwards of three feet on his jumpers in order to draw fouls under the new rule.
“It’s difficult to officiate an NBA game,” Kerr said. “There’s all kinds of gray area, and in the modern game, a lot of players have gotten really good at deception, creating contact.”
At practice on Monday, James said, defiantly, “I don’t adjust to nothing. I’m gonna play how I play and that’s what it is.”
Houston’s tack in addressing the officiating is notably opposite that of Golden State, which has seen Curry in foul trouble more often than not this postseason.
“The whole story is about missed calls, like, we didn’t get any missed calls? Every missed call went their way? Come on,” Kerr said.
Asked if he thinks the Rockets’ public browbeating of officials (including the leak to The Athletic) is a bit of strategy, Curry said, “I think the reason that you ask that question is pretty self explanatory.”
“There’s a lot of action, and I think [officials] have done a solid job throughout the whole playoffs, in terms of just trying to make the right call on every possession,” Curry said.
Curry’s would-be sixth foul was not immediately contested on the court, but plenty of other calls were, on both sides.
Houston guard Chris Paul, for one, aggressively approached an official in Game 1, was assessed a technical and fined $35,000. Green got a technical foul in Game 1 for arguing a call, his third in the playoffs. Four more, and he’ll be suspended for a game.
“On a scale of one to 10, it’s probably an eight, nine, something like that,” Curry said. “That’s because it matters … There’s a fine balance between that competitive fire and … [moving] on with the next possession. To me, it’s honestly exhausting. I talk to the refs every possession, so I try and stay in my lane, and understand that I do foul sometimes, and sometimes, there are bad calls. It’s just a part of the game. Keep it moving.”
Kerr hopes the rest of his team has the same attitude.
“We’ve got to find a way to compete and walk that line without crossing the line and being too demonstrative and too emotional on the sidelines and on the court,” Kerr said. “I don’t know why anybody would want to be a ref, honestly, but they kind of know what they’re getting into, when they’re training to be refs. All you have to do is watch a game, how intense and competitive an NBA playoff games are. Those guys are going to be under the microscope, now that you’ve got reviews and social media. They’re on the spot, and there’s so much gray area in this game. You’re going to miss some, for both teams.”