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The Playcaller On The Horrid Officiating In The US-Spain Game

In officiating, the mistakes everyone notices are usually symptoms, not problems. The way you stay out of trouble on the court is to take care of the little things, the imminently controllable things, and then to have the confidence that your best will be good enough to allow you to handle the surprises. Little things, by their very nature, go generally unnoticed by most folks. And that goes (more than) double when it comes to the work of sports officials whom no one has paid or tuned in to watch. But if we are going to come around to discussing the big, potentially game-changing mistakes officials make, it would behoove everyone to look at the entire picture, the smaller misses that lead to the big ones

In the case of Sunday's gold-medal match-up between the US and Spain, looking at the little things won't just help us with a greater appreciation of what happened in London's North Greenwich Arena-it can also provide some much-needed perspective on the quality of basketball officiating that we see in the NBA.

There's no sugar-coating the fact that the officiating in yesterday's game was a disaster. But to lament the general choppiness ("chippiness" works, too) of the game is to levy far too narrow a critique not just of the crew, but of FIBA. Yes, much of the game had no flow whatsoever. And yes, the twenty-two-foul second quarter was virtually unwatchable. But this was not simply a case of the officials, in Doug Collins's words, "calling things extremely tight." To attach that label to a pattern of officiating should be to imply strategic intent on the part of the officials; but the pattern of evidence from yesterday's game simply doesn't back that up. Those dull, whistle-filled stretches weren't evidence of a crew moving forward with a flawed game-plan--they were evidence of a crew completely in over their heads. Collins and play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald were right to be critical of yesterday's officiating, but they missed a lot of troubling signs early that portended the obvious mess we saw later.

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Barely two minutes into the game there were glaring signs that the crew simply were not up to the pressures of the moment. On the second possession of the game Kevin Durant was called for a foul in a three-point attempt by Spain's Juan-Carlos Navarro. This was really bad news on several fronts. First, if Durant made any contact with Navarro, it was marginal at best, and whatever contact there may have been was clearly after the shot and could easily have been ruled incidental. But even if the official were confident in his call, he had just set a very, very big precedent for perimeter jumpers the rest of the game. Everyone watching knew, or should have known, that the US was going to take a large number of threes, and if that was going to be the standard for a foul on a jump-shooter, it would by necessity be a very, very choppy game. On the other hand, maybe the calling official was unhappy with his whistle, in which case he knew he wasn't going to try to follow his own precedent, and that he'd just gifted Spain an extremely early foul on the Americans' top scorer.

As it turned out, there would indeed be some later obvious, uncalled fouls on perimeter jumpers. The odds are that all three officials were shaken by that first foul on Durant and it that affected their perimeter decision-making the rest of the game. This is precisely the reason that good officials aren't going to call that foul in the first minute of a game without being absolutely sure that A) it was actually a foul, and B) the crew would be able to maintain that standard on similar plays the rest of the game. That the call was made indicated that the calling official was so nervous that he had tunnel vision on one play and lost sight of the game.

The next officiating mistake didn't involve a missed call so much as a missed opportunity. At 7:57 of the first quarter, LeBron James, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol went to the floor after a loose ball. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the crew waited too long to rule a tie-up, but what is not open to dispute is that one or both of the calling officials should have run in immediately to manage the aftermath of the play. It's not that Gasol and Chandler or James were necessarily going to get into any sort of serious skirmish if left to their own devices (they didn't). But an immediate retrieval of the ball and a separation of the players by an official would have sent a strong signal to every participant as to who was in charge.

Joey Crawford likes to say to officials, "Fellas: you have to RUN THE GAME." This was a perfect opportunity for the crew not only to run the game, but to forcefully advertise as much to every player, coach, and spectator. It was an opportunity that, if seized, just might have set a tone that prevented the play that later sent the game into the ditch.

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If there was any doubt that there was going to be big officiating trouble in this game, it should have ended at 1:31 of the first quarter when Derron Williams took a swipe from behind and came up with a clean piece of a Serge Ibaka dunk attempt. When I saw the play live and heard the subsequent whistle my first reaction was that the foul call was clearly wrong. Then I realized that things were actually worse than that, as the calling official was in the lead (baseline) position and had absolutely no chance to see whether Williams's play had been clean.

Fans can say what they want about NBA officials, but they simply do not miss this play, not that way. Maybe one of the outside (slot or trail) officials incorrectly calls a clean block occasionally, but if you don't have League Pass you're likely never to see the lead blow his whistle on that play and be wrong. NBA officials are outstanding at demonstrating patience when they can't see something, and at trusting their partners to come in and clean up when necessary. The official who called that foul on Williams demonstrated neither patience nor trust in his partners when he took it upon himself to blow from an impossible angle. It's a basic mistake, one that destroys an official's confidence and credibility. When that kind of thing happens early, more and bigger problems are almost sure to follow (Note: the same official missed a somewhat similar play from the same position on the floor later in the game).

But there was more still to talk about on that play, had Collins or Fitzgerald chosen to engage. The slot official (positioned near the sideline, free-throw-line-extended) on the play had correctly no-called the Williams block. As would be expected, he immediately heard some chirping from the US bench. Given the circumstances, and decorum rules notwithstanding, a confident official would have simply let the guys say their (reasonable) piece, knowing that the free throws would be over soon enough and play would move to the other end and out of earshot of the aggrieved bench. Instead, the official displayed defensiveness, immediately motioning the complaining players to sit down/stop complaining. That he was not able to stand taller than that in the first quarter didn't give me much confidence in how he or his partners would respond as the pressure of the game increased.

When officials discuss "judgment," they're normally talking about in the following context: did the referee, who saw the entire play, make the right decision? Multiple first-quarter mistakes didn't even involve judgment, really, and that's a problem. Every official is going to miss plays sometimes, especially with players at that level. But if there are problems with the most basic fundamentals, fundamentals a competent high-school official should execute consistently, then there's little hope of smoothly negotiating the challenges that arise when a tough call is missed for more defensible reasons. These first-quarter mistakes weren't mostly about missing tough calls. They were cases of the players being too good and the stage too big for the crew.

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The second quarter was going pretty well. Two-and-a-half minutes in, the only thing that anyone seemed to have griped about was a no-call on Spain for three-seconds. No big deal, right? Well, it wasn't a big deal, but if the crew had stopped the game there maybe the reset would have led to an alternative path in which the next possession didn't wreck the game. At 7:23, Chris Paul found himself on the left wing looking to use a high screen from Tyson Chandler. Sergio Rodriguez, who was defending Paul, didn't seem to like his options much. He seemed to be in no mood either to go under the screen nor to simply be passively taken off his route by Chandler. Instead, he elected try to go through Chandler by giving the American a double-forearm shiver to the chest.

Now, here's what should have happened on that play: the official should have immediately blown the whistle and been running in to separate those two before he could get his arms over his head for the unsportsmanlike (our Flagrant 1-variety) foul call. When one player has been so clearly offended, officials in the US are generally taught to get in and to grab that player-NOT the offending player-and get the innocent guy out of the fray. The reasoning is that officials want to protect the player who has done nothing wrong. If the original offender continues to instigate, an official's partners will be able to come in and try to manage that situation, but the top priority has to be making sure the guy who took the unfair shot on the play doesn't end up suffering for it.

So what happened? Chandler reacted as any reasonable person would. He was furious, and stepped immediately toward Rodriguez. The official did call the foul, but he made three mistakes: first, he was a beat slow with his whistle. Next, when he did blow the whistle, he only called a common foul on Rodriguez; finally, he showed no urgency whatsoever in trying to get in between the players, making his move to step in only after he saw Chandler's reaction. So when Chandler came chest to chest with Rodriguez, and Rodriguez responded by actually touching Chandler's face with his pointed finger, the official was left in the corner he'd painted himself into: he had no option but the double-technical.

Could the official have been fast enough to prevent Chandler from coming chest-to-chest with Rodriguez following the initial foul? There's no way to be sure. But the point is that it wasn't even his initial instinct to try. He didn't foresee what should have been completely obvious given the nature of the initial foul on Rodriguez. What makes this failure in game management even worse is FIBA's rule that technical fouls count as personal fouls. Given the US's lack of interior size, this was a fantastic trade-off for Spain, who exchanged two fouls on a lesser guard for one on the starting American center.

This is another mistake that you almost never see made by NBA officials. Sure, guys mix it up and get whacked with technical fouls all the time, but that's generally despite the best efforts of the officials to do preventive officiating. And even prior to making those quick decisions on the floor, NBA officials are absolutely meticulous in trying to understand and discuss in their pre-game meetings any foreseeable personality/strategy issues that need to be actively managed. For instance, an NBA crew refereeing that game would have known and talked about the relative weakness of the US on the interior, and recognized that one of Spain's chippy players (maybe Rudy Fernandez, maybe someone else) might try to provoke an American big if the price seemed right.

Is this to say that NBA officials never make game management mistakes, that they always prevent the preventable? Of course not. But they do make every effort possible, before the game and during, to make sure that these sorts of things don't happen. And during USA-Spain, there was virtually no evidence that the crew had anything approaching the game-awareness necessary to manage those tough situations.

Collins and Fitzgerald didn't reference that sequence the rest of the quarter, but it seemed to be the turning point. Up to the 7:23 mark of the second quarter, whistles were starting to come a little faster, but the fouls were generally there and nobody seemed to be bothered. For the remainder of the quarter, though, tempers got shorter, the physicality increased, and the only way the crew felt like they could hang on was to call fouls, more than two per minute the rest of the half.

Plenty of those fouls were bad ones. And there were other fouls that weren't called that definitely should have been. But to get bogged down in the specific errors of the rest of the second quarter is pointless. The main issue is that if the crew had set a better tone early (on the first-quarter tie-up) and shown better situational awareness (Sergio Rodriguez), things might have been quite different. Instead, the players were frustrated and the crew were shaken. Everybody's best hope was simply to get to the locker room in one piece, with as few players as possible in foul trouble (by the way, Marc Gasol had no legitimate complaint on his fourth foul, except with his coaching staff that lost track of his foul count and failed to get him out of the game after his third).

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The second half represented a marginal improvement for the crew, but fundamental mistakes continued to lead to ugly mistakes. The good news was that the teams made it more than six minutes into the third quarter before the officials re-entered the picture. The bad news was that the reappearance was a doozy. With 5:46 remaining in the period we saw yet another phantom foul called by a screened lead official who had no business putting air in the whistle. Kevin Love was the victim this time, and the broadcast actually picked up him waving his finger at the official and saying, "You didn't even see it." Love was right. And whether he knew it or not, he was talking to the same official that had missed the Derron Williams "foul" earlier in the game. So much for successful half-time adjustments. That wasn't the only mistake of the third quarter, but it was probably the biggest, which meant the third quarter at least seemed like things might be getting back on track a little bit.

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Going into the fourth quarter, the crew had to be hoping that the teams would just take all of the decisions out of their hands by making shots, since it's generally difficult to chop up a game when the ball is going through the basket. But not every shot is going to go in. Officials still have to manage the game, calling the obvious fouls along the way. Predictably, these areas would continue to be a challenge.

Less than a minute into the quarter, Chris Paul was absolutely destroyed on his three-point attempt by what was supposed to be a Sergio Rodriguez close-out. It was one of the most obvious misses I've ever seen on a perimeter foul, and there's absolutely no excuse for the both outside officials to have missed the foul. The reason they both missed it was that they were committing the cardinal sin of officiating: they were ball-watching. When refereeing a long jump-shot, the official must observe first the shooter's feet (to check for the three-point arc), then keep his eyes on the shooter's elbow and torso until he comes back down to the floor in order to make sure the attempt is finished cleanly. In this case it would have been acceptable for either outside official to call the foul, but both took their eyes off of to watch the flight of the ball before the foul became obvious. Luckily for the US and for the officials, the shot went in. But Paul would have loved the opportunity for a well-earned free throw, and also the accompanying recovery period from the blow he absorbed from Rodriguez. In a related story, Paul limped down the court and was beaten badly by Rodriguez on the ensuing possession.

It would have been tough to miss a more obvious foul the rest of the game than the one on Rodriguez, but the crew took a step in that direction when Rudy Fernandez was called for only a common foul on Paul with 8:24 remaining, rather than the obviously appropriate unsportsmanlike foul. As Paul was getting started on a fast-break, Fernandez turned his shoulder into Paul and chucked him hard in order to put a stop to the threat. Fernandez made no play whatsoever on the ball, and the shoulder turn on his part was clear evidence of ill intent.

The official did make an immediate move to step in on the play and get between Paul and Fernandez, but one wonders why that instinct didn't bring him to conclude that a more severe penalty was called for. It's not completely clear on the replay, but one theory is that as the official was running up-court to referee the play his eyes were on Paul, rather than ahead of the play as they should have been, in anticipation of a defender getting involved. If that's true, then the official only saw the collision itself rather than the whole play. It should be noted that this is actually the most charitable interpretation of the play, since to believe that he clearly saw the Fernandez chuck would be to believe that his judgment was poor. Bob Fitzgerald characterized this as the "international foul you see that stops a fast break," but he was being far too kind. That was a dirty play and recognized as such by both Carmelo Anthony and Paul, the latter of whom would certainly know.

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The last gross game-management error, one that had the potential to seriously alter the trajectory of the game, was again a result of smaller mistakes. The sequence started when Carmelo Anthony took a corner jumper with 4:32 remaining in the fourth quarter. As Anthony took the shot, he used the Reggie-Miller-kick in an attempt to draw a foul. As he kicked out his right foot, he made contact with the oncoming Marc Gasol, who was correctly ruled not to have committed a foul. That part of the play was superbly refereed. What was not good was that the official didn't notice that Rudy Fernandez, who was closing out on Anthony from the top side of the play, came underneath Anthony, causing Anthony to twist his ankle when he landed on Fernandez's left foot.

To be fair, this is an incredibly tough play to referee. You have two defenders challenging the same shooter, both of whom need to be judged. In a perfect world the lead official would be on that side of the floor and referee the player nearer the baseline (Gasol), and the trail official would referee the player coming into the picture from higher on the floor (Fernandez). This would give the outside official a better chance to catch the walk-under, which should have been ruled a blocking foul. But sometimes tough plays get missed, and maybe if Anthony hadn't tried the fool-the-ref move he would have gotten the call.

It was a tough break for Anthony, but it's difficult to fault the official for missing it. Where that official erred was in waving Anthony up, signaling that he was judging a flop. There's a theory in the US on that type of play that advises against waving a player up on an adjudged flop. The reasoning is that A) it looks condescending, which doesn't help foster good relationships between the crew and players, B) if there's no whistle, it's pretty obvious that the official didn't see a foul, and probably saw a flop; and C) if the official didn't judge the play accurately, it only compounds the error to give the flop signal.

But regardless of the wisdom of the flop signal, the official, and his partners, should have recognized sooner than they did how much Anthony's injury was affecting him after the play. On Anthony's jumper, Kobe Bryant grabbed the rebound and converted a short bank shot. At that point it wasn't clear whether Anthony would be able to walk off his injury, but it soon became obvious that he could not. On the next Spain possession, Anthony was limping noticeably. Given FIBA rules preventing live-ball timeouts and limiting time-out requests to coaches only, the crew should have reasoned that Mike Krzyzewski might want a timeout at the next dead ball (frankly, they should have been doubly aware of that possibility given that LeBron James was not on the floor at that point). But they seemed to be oblivious.

After Spain scored on their next possession, Anthony inbounded the ball but looked to be in agony. After he passed the ball in to Paul he actually remained out-of-bounds momentarily, grimacing in pain before trudging toward the offensive end. At that point, the officials should have reasoned that Krzyzewski would choose to wait no longer than he absolutely had to to call his timeout, making a mental note to look at the US bench immediately following the next few dead balls. On that possession, Bryant would end up turning the ball over, leading to a Fernandez lay-up. That was the moment that the officials had to know a timeout would be requested by Krzyzewski. Each member of the crew should have looked his way the moment the Fernandez lay-up dropped through the net.

But they didn't. As was expected by virtually everyone watching, and as reported by Doug Collins, Krzyzewski was signaling for a timeout at that moment, but apparently none of the officials looked over to the US bench quickly enough (if at all), and Kevin Durant completed the inbounds pass. The US would finally get its timeout with 3:20 left in the game following a turnover by Anthony and the its lead at six points.

At this point some might lay some blame at the feet of Anthony and Kevin Durant for inbounding the ball too quickly and not giving Krzyzewski more time to get the attention of an official. Those are legitimate criticisms, but it by no means mitigates the guilt of the officials. Their oversight was continuing evidence that they were so focused on what was right in front of them that they had lost all awareness of what was happening beyond their field of vision.

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The final deer-in-the-headlights play from the crew came with 1:25 remaining, and could have resulted in the most embarrassing mistake of a game riddled with them. With the shot clock winding down, Chris Paul, who had just received a pass while standing near the division line, heaved an attempt toward the goal hoping for at least a touch on the rim and a chance for an offensive rebound. The shot looked badly long from the start, and actually hit the front edge of the top of the backboard, caroming upward as the shot-clock expired. The problem was that almost immediately after the ball kicked up off the backboard, two officials blew the whistle for a shot-clock violation, despite the fact that she shot wasn't over. To put into perspective how premature this was, the ball bounced so high that it was outside the HD camera shot as the whistles cracked. In other words, there was absolutely no way to judge with confidence that the shot would not come down and strike the rim.

As it turned out, the shot came down harmlessly, missing the rim by what looked like eight inches or so. But if the ball had struck the rim, there would have been a dreadful mess given that no set of basketball rules anywhere says that the top of the backboard is out-of-bounds. Worse yet, if the ball had been possessed by the ghosts of Munich and had dropped through the hoop, the basket would have been nullified, three legitimate points erased, and the alternating-possession-rule invoked since no team was in possession at the time of what would have been ruled an inadvertent whistle. Just imagine the scene if that ball had gone in, Spain had gotten the ball on the AP arrow, and then gone on to win by one possession. I'm not sure Doug Collins would have survived.

For the record, if an aspiring NBA referee made that mistake in an official summer-league game, it would be the end for him or her, at least for that year's try-out. The note at the bottom of the evaluation sheet would read something to the effect of "Big lack of patience and discipline in the last two minutes. Not ready for prime time."

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In some ways this game critique may seem harsh. After all, non-NBA FIBA officials hardly ever get to see anywhere close to that many NBA All-Stars on the floor at the same time. Add in the pressures of a gold-medal game, and the circumstances become almost completely unfair. All of which is why I lay the blame for their performance primarily at the feet of FIBA. Maybe FIBA is like FIFA, i.e. they think controversy is good for the game and thus feel unmotivated to adjust. But I don't think that comparison can be made easily. Say what you want about FIFA officiating, but you'll never see a World Cup Final refereed by someone whose highest level of experience is in MLS. FIFA chairman Sepp Blatter may be arrogant, but he's not stupid. If you don't work the Premiereship, The Bundesliga, Serie A, or La Liga on a regular basis, you're not going to be tapped to referee the world's biggest soccer matches, nor should you be. FIBA needs to accept the demonstrable fact that the best basketball referees in the world are the ones who consistently get to referee the best group of players in the world, and then proceed accordingly.

The difficult politics of the situation are obvious of course, and currently prevent World Championships and Olympics from being refereed exclusively by NBA officials. But something needs to be done. Maybe a formal partnership could be developed between FIBA and the NBA. Maybe the Euroleague, for example, could work with the NBA on a training program that would consistently allow their best officials to participate in training clinics run by the NBA, its supervisors, and its officials. Maybe they could even bring a select few officials to the US every summer to work NBA Summer League games.

Of course that's just the faintest sketch of a plan. But the optimist in me thinks that even if those particular ideas weren't practicable, something could be managed to allow the NBA to play a role in improving the quality of international officiating. On the other hand the cynic in me says that if the outcome of a gold-medal game were to swing not because of a missed judgment call but because of a breach of basic officiating fundamentals, FIBA would be willing to accept that as the cost of doing business-as-usual.

Doug Collins says it wouldn't be the first time.

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