Aside from the potential elimination of the 73-win Golden State Warriors, much of the focus during the 2016 NBA playoffs has been spent on the officiating. There have been more blowouts than the league has ever seen in a single postseason, but when the games are close they seem to be affected in large part by the referees.
Showing accountability and transparency, the NBA releases reports regarding the officiating for the final two minutes of games decided by five points or fewer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver remains steadfast that the refs get most of the calls right, despite their often vocal critics.
"Roughly 90 percent -- they get it right," Silver told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth. "Now, of course, I'd like 90 percent to be 100 percent. And so would they. But what these reports also show, what fans already know is, human error is part of this game, and the best athletes in the world make mistakes. And coaches occasionally make mistakes. Officials do, too."
Silver might be right, but reports have given fuel to players and fans that can’t accept defeat, blaming poor or biased officiating for a tough loss. A few glaring instances stand out this postseason in which the officials missed calls that could have had a direct impact on the outcome.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one win away from reaching the NBA Finals, and some say they've benefitted by a few key no-calls. Their Game 2 upset of the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals was highlighted by the contest’s final play in which Dion Waiters was not whistled for shoving Manu Ginobili to the ground before he inbounded the ball. San Antonio ended up stealing Waiters’ pass anyway, but Oklahoma City held on to win.
Three games later, the Thunder beat the Spurs again. This time refs seemed to miss a blatant attempt by Kawhi Leonard to foul Russell Westbrook and stop the clock. The play ended with Westbrook getting fouled as he scored a layup, effectively ending the Spurs’ chances.
The Warriors were on the wrong end of the Thunder’s officiating luck when officials missed a pivotal travel on Westbrook, as the guard dragged his foot in the final seconds of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr wasn’t happy about the league’s admission that they missed an important call.
"I don't like the practice," Kerr said. "I appreciate the NBA trying to be transparent, but it's unfair to the officials. I feel like it throws them under the bus. They have an impossible job. They really do. And there are going to be bad calls both ways, every game. They're never going to be perfect. They're doing the best they can. I don't think there's any point, personally, in exposing bad calls. It doesn't serve a purpose to me."
Admitting to past mistakes and a willingness to discuss perceived problems might be more important in the NBA than in any other sport. The league is often the subject of conspiracy theories with the idea that the NBA takes measures to ensure that a particular team wins a playoff game. This idea has been furthered by Tim Donaghy, a former NBA ref who claims games have been fixed.
Silver believes it's important to release the reports, and he says it's information that teams want.
"The nature of these LTMs -- these 'Last Two Minute Reports' -- is that it's information we have already been sharing with our teams. They of course want to know if a particular play in the league's view was correctly called," Silver said.
"And in part, not even necessarily because they accept the league's view over theirs. But they want to understand the basics of why we're making certain calls. And my sense is, the media and the fans want to have that same understanding. And they want to see if we're being consistent."