MIAMI — By rule, any substitute checking into an NBA game must first report his intentions to the scorer’s table. Denver’s Jamal Murray was on his way there during a game last month, then got derailed when an errant pass came flying his way.
That’s when referee Jason Phillips intervened.
Phillips could have easily been a stickler for rules and told Murray — who never made it to the table — that he had to wait until the next stoppage of play. But Phillips knew Murray was on his way to checking in long before the play was dead and allowed him to enter the game.
“Thank you,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, and Phillips nodded.
There were moments of civility like this between referees, players and coaches this season. They just were overshadowed way too often. Now everyone is watching to see how things unfold in the playoffs.
The league wants to avoid more headline-grabbing confrontation with the playoffs starting Saturday and stakes and emotion becoming even higher, so officials met with all 30 teams , the last of those on Monday.
“We all make mistakes,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s a game. We’re all a part of it. We’re all in the NBA. The officials are part of the NBA. So we have to understand that we’re all under the same corporation.”
There have been instances where they have looked more like combatants.
Referee Courtney Kirkland was taken off the floor for a week for getting too aggressive with Golden State’s Shaun Livingston. Warriors star Kevin Durant — who’d been ejected once in his first nine seasons — got kicked out of five games. Even LeBron James got tossed for the first time in his 15-year career.
It all led the NBA to announce in late January its plan to improve how players and referees get along. Former referee Monty McCutchen, now an NBA vice president overseeing referee development and training, and NBA senior vice president Michelle Johnson met with clubs to listen to their perspective.
McCutchen’s biggest hope is finding a way to make communication better, on all sides. He stressed to teams that he wasn’t meeting with them solely to defend and protect officials.
“Our league needs strong officials,” McCutchen said. “What we’re trying to shoot for is this idea that you can have strength without arrogance and you can show humility without having to give into weakness. And that sort of Goldilocks moment, where the porridge is just right, is the balance in which we can start to disagree about the play without being demeaning or condescending or arrogant to one another.”
That hasn’t been the case at times this season.
It’s rare that a call will truly decide a game, and the NBA is sticking to its pledge of transparency by continuing to release reports about calls made in the final two minutes of close games. The Last 2 Minute Reports have been widely panned by players and coaches, especially when those reports show that a big call didn’t go their way in a close loss.
For the 400-plus games that have met the criteria for such a report being publicly issued this season, the NBA has said 97.4 percent of the calls made — in other words, 39 out of every 40 — are correct. When factoring in no-calls, what the NBA defines as “event accuracy” drops to 93.9 percent.
But there have also been some difficult moments.
Livingston and Kirkland butted heads in a game at Miami, earning the Warriors guard a one-game suspension and Kirkland’s discipline after the league determined they were both in the wrong in their argument over a non-call. Through Sunday, there were 79 ejections this season — up considerably from the 61 last season. The NBA said 902 technicals were called last season; that figure has also been topped this season, albeit only by about 30.
Draymond Green, who isn’t shy about getting technicals, has complained. So has Chris Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association.
“To be honest, we need to kind of just go out there and play, and not worry about anything but that,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “We can’t worry about what happened, even legitimately. We have to just go play and not say anything and just do our jobs. I think that’ll be a focus for the rest of the season for our team.”
But Lowry knows, starting Saturday, everything gets magnified.
“You can’t get distracted or obsess on the officials or things that happen during the game that you can’t necessarily control,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t cross the line consistently and expect to develop the right mental toughness that you need to win.”