Moore: The Fouls the Refs Did (And Didn’t) Miss in Rockets-Warriors Game 1
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden
- After the Rockets fell to the Warriors in Game 1 Sunday, the refs were at the center of NBA conversation.
- Matt Moore looks at the hotly-debated "landing-zone fouls" and where Houston goes from here.
Let’s start with a few things from Rockets-Warriors Game 1 so we understand just what we’re talking about here.
- The officiating did not cost the Rockets Game 1, any more than their shooting 14-of-47 from 3-point range, or missing five free throws, or allowing Kevin Durant to score 35 points (be it by design or not), or leaving Nene in and allowing a late switch onto Steph Curry (upon which Curry of course daggered) cost them Game 1. You can always overcome officiating if you play better. The Rockets played well. They played well enough to win. They didn’t win, because they didn’t do enough to leave the margin with no doubt.
- The key calls being debated are “dangerous” in that a player landing can turn an ankle. That’s the most likely scenario. There are more severe injuries that can conceivably occur, but this isn’t like undercutting someone dunking who could break their arm or hip. They can lead to injuries, but “dangerous” is probably too strong a word.
- The Rockets still got James Harden to the line 16 times. As a team, they got there 29 times overall, two more than the Warriors. They weren’t jobbed out of calls, and the Warriors didn’t live at the line.
- I firmly believe the non-called fouls were not the product of an intended strategy. Steve Kerr isn’t sending out his goons to injure James Harden because he doesn’t have goons and he wouldn’t do that. I also don’t believe the intention of these plays was to injure Harden. That they were dangerous was the product of an attempt to close out on shooters hard, not to injure them.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s address it. The calls in Game 1 of Warriors-Rockets, specifically those pertaining to Warriors closeouts on Houston shooters, were bad, missed calls. They were very clearly fouls. They were very clearly damaging to a team that needs those shots specifically. And the way they were executed was clearly outside the boundaries of the rules. The results of those non-calls were clearly to the detriment of Houston’s chances of winning the game, a 104-100 Golden State victory.
Here’s what we’re talking about.
A Brief History of the Undercut
There was a great Spur named Bruce Bowen. You may have seen him on television in a bow tie. Seems like a good dude, well liked in San Antonio. But he had a habit of this:
Bowen wasn’t the first player to use that tactic, but he was the one who got caught the most since YouTube came available.
That put the undercut on the national stage many years ago. It was always a tactic that was frowned on, but more accepted when physicality and dirtier play was considered more acceptable. It faded in recent years, especially in the 3-point explosion since everyone’s a jumpshooter now.
But then, this happened two years ago:
OK, now look, it’s easy to point to that and notice that it was in fact the Warriors on that sequence. But Zaza Pachulia’s no longer on the team and Pachulia was specifically brought on board to be “the tough guy.” It’s a coincidence, truly.
The rule is pretty simple and is available for clarification via the NBA’s officiating website. The shooter has the right to the space he takes to land off a jump shot. Here’s a crucial component in this video for later: you can jump forward if you don’t kick your legs out. If you do, it’s an offensive foul. And just like with a charge, if an opponent is just standing in a spot and you leap into them, it’s either a no-call or an offensive foul depending on how you land. This is really important. We’ll come back to it later.
Let’s talk about Sunday.
First, let’s talk Harden. There are three ways to guard the Harden step-back, beyond simply “praying.” You can pull the Jazz’s and Bucks’ tactic of shading him from behind on his left hip, forcing him away and giving yourself an angle to block it from behind. You can contest from the side or you can contest in front.
In front is actually worse. You have to clear the most space to get to him, it’s where he wants you and you’re more likely to get caught by his dribble tricks. Klay Thompson front-guarded Harden in Game 1.
This was three minutes into the game:
That set the tone for the day. What we’re talking about is Thompson invading the landing space where Harden comes back down.
This was the really questionable, super-debatable one: the final shot by Harden vs. Draymond Green:
And the reverse angle:
So there’s a lot of stuff going on here, and this one, honestly, isn’t that bad because it’s debatable. Harden doesn’t kick out; his feet are pointed straight down the whole time. That matters. But because of how he jumps, he’s landing with his legs out and he’s jumping forward. But according to that NBA rulebook video, you can argue that Harden has a right to that landing space, and Green impedes it. He’s not going straight up and down, though, that’s for sure.
There’s also the matter of Harden falling here, on all these plays. Is that contributing to the no-call? Are the officials so on the lookout for Harden trying to manipulate them into a call that they are purposefully not giving him the call if he falls? Because part of the issue is, if someone undercuts you, you’re going to fall. Not calling it when Harden head-snaps on a drive? Totally understandable, as Joe Borgia outlined after the game, while also acknowledging a missed call earlier in the game:
Joe Borgia, NBA Senior Vice President of Replay & Referee Operations, joined @NBATV to discuss two plays from #HOUatGSW and what constitutes a foul in cases of defenders closing out on shooters: pic.twitter.com/wxgVEg6tWB
— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) April 29, 2019
This one from Green is a lot more borderline. This isn’t much of a hop, and look where Green’s foot is as he turns away:
There’s some question as to “well, if you can’t jump forward, how are you supposed to guard it?” Easy. You guard it from the side, which for the most part the Warriors did in Game 1, and did so well. Here’s Kevon Looney guarding from the side and contesting:
Here’s Steph Curry doing the same, just staying with him and putting a hand up from the side:
The Warriors did this all night long. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney — I couldn’t find an instance of them undercutting Harden, and they contested well and made him miss shots. So it clearly wasn’t a team-wide initiative.
Some of these, however, were just egregious:
But Harden wasn’t the only one.
Going to be a long series for the Rockets if they're not going to call the step under on the Warriors pic.twitter.com/xULazrDL00
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 28, 2019
Chris Paul absolutely flops here — a 100%, grade-A flop. However, look at where Livingston lands and where Paul jumps. If Paul doesn’t move to the side, he’s coming down on Livingston’s leg. The Rockets can’t afford to lose Chris Paul for a minute, much less a game or two in this series; we saw what happened last year. If he doesn’t flop to the side, that’s a bad landing.
(This was an outlier from Livingston, by the way.)
Also, pay attention to the top of the screen, too. Livingston clearly gets Paul’s hand on that follow-through. I’ve always hated that rule; the shot’s away, who cares about the contact. But that’s consistently called, even in the playoffs.
Same deal here: watch Curry’s hand on the follow-through…
Now, look, there are going to be these calls, on both sides, in every game. For instance, Harden does the exact same thing here, and he knows he slipped and went too far. Watch his body language as he cringes, expecting a foul:
But later on, Harden contests entirely differently. He contested wrongly, stepping into Curry once. The Warriors, or at least some of them, invaded landing space consistently. Here Harden actually shortens his step to avoid running into Iguodala:
For the 700th time, I will reiterate that these calls did not determine the game. But they were clear misses. What’s more, Mike D’Antoni said after the game that at halftime the officials told them they missed several calls on these close-outs… and then the second half was just as bad.
So the Rockets have a legit complaint.
This whole dynamic has huge ripple effects. For one, the Warriors won a game in which they had 20 turnovers. They won a game in which Klay Thompson and Steph Curry shot 10-for-25. They held home court. This was a losable game they won.
And to top it, the Rockets are already on tilt. Techs for Mike D’Antoni and Chris Paul. The Rockets talking about it constantly. The late night piece from the Athletic detailing the Rockets’ analytically-based evidence of bias against them.
Losing to the Warriors in Game 1 was bad for Houston. Already taking on the mindset that things are stacked against them? That’s bad for Houston. They won three of the first five games last year because they played with freedom and bravado. If they get warped into an angry, malcontented series, that’s not going to work for them.
Houston’s margin for error was always going to be slim in this series; it always is with these Warriors when they’re engaged. But now, that margin for error may have lost its landing zone.