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The NBA’s best current rivalry: Rockets v Warriors or Rockets v Referees?

Last year’s dramatic Western Conference final match-up between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets ended with the Warriors winning 4-3. The Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals and achieved their second consecutive NBA Championship. This year, they look to do the three-peat.

The Rockets have a chance for revenge this year, facing the Warriors in the Western Conference semi-final. Despite conceding the first two games held at the Warriors’ Oracle Arena, the Rockets won both games at home, tying the series 2-2.

In true fashion, the series has been dramatic and controversial. In game 2, Draymond Green appeared to scratch James Harden’s eyes whilst competing for a rebound, causing him to temporarily leave the court to receive treatment, whilst Steph Curry dislocated his finger but continued to splash from the 3-point line. The rivalry has been brewing in recent years and is reaching its climax this year as players and coaches from both teams are making their thoughts well known. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors, appeared to mock James Harden by pretending to fall over, or flop, during a media session – alluding to Harden’s proclivity to draw fouls from opposition players whilst shooting the 3. Kevin Durant was even seen exchanging words with James Harden’s mother at courtside during game 4.

After game 1 and 2 in Oakland, the officiating stole the headlines again. Last summer, Houston prepared a report for the NBA, which claimed that the officiating in last year’s Western Conference finals cost the Rockets the series and quite possibly the championship. The report alleges that the officials missed 81 potential calls or non-calls in Game 7 alone. The theme continues into this year’s series.

After game 1, the Rockets argued that officials were declining to call fouls where Warriors players encroached into the landing zone of Rockets players. This involves a defender moving into the landing zone of an opposition player after they jump to shoot, meaning the player lands dangerously on the defending player. Such conduct from Zaza Pachulia in game 1 of the Golden State Warriors’ Western Conference match-up against the San Antonio Spurs two years ago led to Kawhi Leonard injuring his ankle and unable to feature in the rest of the series. Chris Paul was fined$35,000 after game 1 for “aggressively confronting and recklessly making contact with a game official” having been ejected for his second technical foul.

James Harden insisted he just wanted a “fair chance” and reminded reporters of “what happened a couple years back with Kawhi. Call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results.” In game 2, oil was poured onto the controversy as the league appointed Scott Foster as one of the officials. Scott Foster has not officiated a Rockets game since February after the Rockets branded him “rude and arrogant” in a game where Harden was fouled out. The Rockets lost game 2, meaning that they have lost the last seven playoff games in which Foster has officiated. Chris Paul has lost the last 8 games that have also featured Foster as an official.

Fans would much prefer for the series to be defined not by the officiating but by the basketball played by both sides. Complaints concerning officiating have dwindled since the Rockets returned to Houston to level the series whilst Kevin Durant and James Harden are locked in a potentially historic duel. This is the fourth post-season meeting between the teams in the last five seasons with some describing this match up as a classic in the making.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 127
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