It’s always been my inclination to defend NBA referees.
For the most part they are expert at a job that can be brutally challenging and stress-filled. In the years I’ve covered the league – and that’s more than a quarter-century – they shine in the areas of integrity and accountability.
But Monday night’s Charlotte Hornets-Dallas Mavericks game was a farce in the first half. Three officials called four technical fouls. A flagrant foul called against Mavericks forward David Lee drew the wrath of Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Finally, as the second half was about to begin, referee Marc Davis walked over to the Hornets bench to speak with coach Steve Clifford. I don’t know what was said, but from the body language and finger-pointing, I would say Clifford lit into the ref. And from what I saw in the first half, whatever criticism Clifford leveled would have been justified.
Understand something: I don’t believe the officials determined the outcome of a 107-96 Mavericks victory (which ended the Hornets’ seven-game winning streak). I didn’t see anything suggesting one team benefited more than the other from the calls or non-calls.
But I did see a situation that escalated out of control. First the referees seemed reluctant to discipline players for yapping at them. Then the refs seemed to try to regain control with a series of technicals. Dallas’ Justin Anderson got one as did Clifford and the Hornets’ Kemba Walker and Nic Batum.
Neither Walker nor Batum is what you’d call a hot head. But they’d had enough.
One of the things that is obligatory in refereeing is consistently establishing what is and isn’t a foul. Players can live with whatever so long as whatever is applied the same way. That didn’t seem to happen in the first half and that led to a loss of control.
The crowd became so angry with the officials that it booed most every call the refs made. They were booed off the court at halftime and the boos erupted again when the refs returned for the start of the third quarter.
Clifford said postgame he could have handled his discussion with Davis better. Good for Clifford – that’s the classy approach – but he was simply saying what everyone else in Time Warner Cable Arena was thinking: that this was a bad, bad night for the guys in the gray shirts.
That opinion was apparently shared by Cuban, who has never been reluctant to say what he thinks, even if sometimes that leads to fines.
Cuban went on Twitter to say the NBA “embarrasses itself by not knowing what a flagrant foul is.” Cuban said he saw no contact to Hornets center Cody Zeller above the neck, so Lee’s common foul shouldn’t have been upgraded to a Flagrant 1.
Honest minds can disagree on whether that was a Flagrant. That really isn’t the point. By the time Cuban took to Twitter, he was expressing what 90 percent of the fans in the arena were thinking: This game was off the rails.
The refs had themselves to blame for that.