The NBA, to put it mildly, has a public perception problem when it comes to the integrity of the way the game is officiated.
And since nothing fights a fire quite like pouring gasoline on it, the league has assigned referee Scott Foster to Game 2 of the second-round playoff series between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Tuesday night.
When NBA fans realized who got the call, they had Foster’s name trending on Twitter.
It’s likely no one was less thrilled about it than Rockets guard James Harden.
It’s not even noon in California and “Scott Foster” is trending in the United States.
This should all go well. https://t.co/Jq659Mq8wp
— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) April 30, 2019
The roots of the beef between Foster and Harden go way back, but the most recent iteration of the feud stems from an incident in February in which Foster aggressively whistled Harden into fouling out of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” Harden said after that game.
“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” he said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”
Harden was fined $25,000 for his public criticism of Foster, and the embattled ref has been assigned to no Rockets games since that incident. That is, until now.
NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh explained why that might be a problem.
Wow. James Harden has played 265 games in the past three seasons (including postseason)
He has fouled out in 4 games over that time.
3 of them were officiated by Scott Foster.
Story coming on this whole GS-HOU referee war https://t.co/qltsfotLGG
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) April 30, 2019
The idea that Foster could be the lead referee for 75 percent of Harden’s instances of fouling out of a game since the 2016-17 season seems a bit too convenient to be a coincidence.
Even Basketball Reference, impartial keeper of stats and supposedly above the fray in anything in the NBA that can’t be explicitly measured, found something to explicitly measure.
Since the 2017 postseason the Rockets are 0-6 when Scott Foster refs their games. They have averaged more FT/FTA and fewer PF than their opponents in these games. However, HOU has shot 28.2% on 3s, while opps have shot 39.6% (3 more makes on 58 fewer atts)https://t.co/UFwhFER1HT
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) April 30, 2019
Granted, the refereeing assignments are determined in advance for the playoffs. The league doesn’t announce the crews until the morning of each game. But just like the NFL accidentally scheduling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for seven straight weeks away from home, someone should’ve put a set of human eyes on this and thought, “This isn’t right. We need to fix it.”
Playoff referee assignments are preset for first 4 games of each series. Scott Foster hadn’t worked in second round yet, he was scheduled for Game 2 several days ago. Was not a reaction by league to Rockets complaints.
Even some Rockets knew this was likely over last couple days
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) April 30, 2019
As if the Foster problem weren’t bad enough on its own, Game 1 was already roiled by refereeing controversy involving non-calls as the Warriors tried to defend Harden on the perimeter.
Plenty of fans were already up in arms suggesting the game was rigged because the Warriors won by four and Harden didn’t get his usual litany of calls (although he did attempt 15 free throws).
An ESPN report included this juicy tidbit for those who think that complaining about Foster isn’t just trafficking in conspiracy theories:
“According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foster issued 18 fouls (personal or technical) in the Feb. 21 game — 12 against the Rockets and six against the Lakers. Seven of the fouls against the Rockets, who blew a 19-point lead in the second half, occurred in the fourth quarter. Houston did not attempt a free throw in the final 20 minutes of the game, compared to 17 free throws for the Lakers during that span.”
As for why Foster is refereeing playoff games at all, something plenty of fans, and not just in Houston, find unconscionable, whether you like him or not, he did grade well on his evaluations throughout the regular season.
Monty McCutchen, NBA vice president and head of referee development and training, explained the process to USA Today before the playoffs started.
“We have young people in, but their work has clearly shown they are prepared for this opportunity,” McCutchen said. “We really want this system to be a meritocracy. People who are putting in the work, putting in the performance are the ones that should serve the game at the highest level at this time of the year.
“That being said, we do have people who are putting the work in who do have years of experience and who bring that sense of calm to that game.”
But still, guys. Everyone who watches the NBA on a regular basis knows Scott Foster’s name for a reason, and it’s not because he’s a calm, fair, and impartial voice.
If your referees are making enemies out of fans and players alike, something has gone wrong, and it doesn’t help the image of a “rigged league” that suffered one of the biggest match-fixing scandals in North American pro sports history to continue to stoke that controversy during quite possibly the marquee matchup of the entire playoffs.
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