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The Triple Team: NBA referees ruin fun Jazz/Sixers matchup; Rudy Gobert’s ‘small-market’ comments and some of the missed calls

Jazz center will likely draw the larger fine from the NBA for alleging an officiating conspiracy against teams like Utah, Cleveland, Portland and New Orleans

(Matt Slocum | AP) Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert sits on the bench in the final seconds of overtime during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Philadelphia.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 131-123 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Referees turn a fun contest into a no-contest

Man, the officials were bad tonight.

This game was a close one down the stretch, and the referees straight up ruined it. The crew of Sean Corbin, Michael Smith, and Brandon Adair made some really bad calls down the stretch that turned a game that the Jazz would have won into a game that they lost, and the Jazz were pretty rightly furious about it. Indeed, they were so mad that they’re definitely going to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines tomorrow, thanks to comments they made after the game.

My Tribune beat writing partner Eric Walden’s story focuses mostly on Donovan Mitchell’s quotes after the game, but I wanted to look at Rudy Gobert’s comments on it. His full quote on the refereeing were 700 words long, so it’s too long to just copy and paste here. You can read the comments in the tweet below, or I’ll discuss the highlights in bullet form.

There are some really notable thoughts in there!

• Gobert full-on asserts that there’s a referee conspiracy against small market teams. This is a complaint Gobert first made three years ago (the previous fine is why I think Gobert will receive a larger fine than Mitchell tomorrow).

Is that true? Maybe the best thing we have to go on is the league’s last two minute reports. The biggest database that I know about for those is here at a website called pudding.cool, but it only has data from 2015 to 2018. We can count which teams were more frequently disadvantaged by calls the NBA admitted it screwed up on during that time:

Well, that’s not great. Four of the top five most disadvantaged teams are small markets.

Of course, that analysis has problems of its own: the data ends in 2018, so we don’t know if the small-market conspiracy occurred since then. It also trusts the NBA’s own grading of its calls — and boy, have I thought the Last Two Minute reports made some weird decisions on calls.

• Gobert also specifically says that he believes Mike Conley is being unfairly officiated. He says that this is inexplicable, because Conley is pretty well regarded as perhaps the nicest human being in the league. He’s never earned a technical foul in a 13-year NBA career.

Is this true? Again, we go to the L2M data, click the link to see the full player list. Russell Westbrook is hellacious to officials, so is Draymond Green. Both got the benefit of the doubt on wrong calls more often than they got punished. Meanwhile, Mike Conley is disadvantaged more often than he gets wrong calls in his favor, as do other relative non-complainers like Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker.

That needs to be fixed, and fast: officials can’t kowtow to players who yell at them, while giving bad calls to players who play respectfully.

• Gobert says he’s put in the work that people say should lead to better respect from the officials — respecting them first, knowing their names, etc. But he says he doesn’t feel that same respect back.

Look, officials should be above this. I don’t care if a player thinks Sean Corbin’s name is Con Shorbin, every player should get the same whistle no matter what.

• Gobert says “If we don’t say it now, it might be too late,” and that “there may be some people that don’t want to see us go as far as I believe that we can go.”

That’s a pretty clear sign that he’s most afraid of this referee bias occurring during the playoffs, and frankly, that’s where I’d be most concerned too. The league doesn’t really have a huge financial interest in the Jazz losing one of 72 games. The league does have a huge financial interest in putting big market teams in marquee games in the playoffs. I don’t think we’ve really seen that thumb on the scale since the Kings playoff loss to the Lakers, but I don’t think it’s a completely ridiculous worry.

20 years ago, a refereeing crew led by Dick Bavetta blew two crucial calls in the NBA Finals, two obvious 24-second shot clock violations that cost the Jazz Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Replay would have changed those calls now, but they’re worried about more un-reviewable calls going against them later. Yes, the Jazz might be overreacting now, but if it really can save them during the playoffs, the rant will be worth the huge fine that’s coming.

2. So let’s talk about the mistakes

I don’t have enough space to put in all of the referee’s mistakes tonight. Here are, oh, I don’t know, five of them.

• Conley got clearly fouled on two consecutive drives without a whistle. Like, you tell me: does Matisse Thybulle get all ball here on Conley’s shot, or does he make a heck of a lot of contact with Conley’s arm?

• The play that got everyone mad online was actually the right call in the end: With 28 seconds left, Royce O’Neale deflected a Sixer pass out of bounds, but appeared to save it. But actually, and this wasn’t clear from the replays the broadcasters were showing, the ball hit off of referee Brandon Adair’s leg before O’Neale saved it, meaning the play was dead at that point — Sixers ball.

The frustrating bit about that play was the complete lack of communication about what occurred on the play. The referees got on the microphone, calmly announced that they had checked the time on the clock, and that it was Sixers ball, without actually addressing what they spent so long checking. That’s why we give them a microphone, for the referees to explain those calls, and they didn’t.

• This was a big one: Mitchell has a chance to put the Jazz up two possessions again. The first shot looks fairly blocked, but on the second shot, Embiid gets Mitchell’s arm — that’s why the shot was two feet wide, and Mitchell raises his arms in confusion. The refs miss it, but a whistle here would have won the Jazz the game.

• Man, this play was a mess. Mitchell drives, and Tobias Harris has an elbow into him on the play, clearly impacting Mitchell’s balance on the layup. No whistle. The rebound is bonkers: Ben Simmons shoves Gobert into Joel Embiid, who I think has his head hit by Gobert’s elbow. Somehow, the ball ends up with Mitchell again, who uses a non-standard shooting form to jump into Seth Curry to earn three free throws.

If the refs hadn’t been calling elbow-in-the-side, push-in-the-back calls on the other end, this wouldn’t be a conversation. But the crew swallows their whistles here — until they make a terrible call for Mitchell’s free throws in the end. That really should be an offensive foul, as Mitchell makes all of the contact illegally. Though honestly, with how the league is calling jump shot fouls right now, who knows... that needs to be addressed.

• I’m just blown away by this call. Matt Harpring’s right... Simmons’ right arm is hooking Mitchell’s. It’s a terrible missed call.

I think tonight, at least in the fourth quarter and overtime, the referees missed more calls than they got right. That less than 50% success rate isn’t what you want.

3. Okay, how about the actual game?

I feel a little guilty focusing so much on the referees, but based on how that game played out, they made themselves the story — the postgame comments from the Jazz’s stars only ensured it.

So pretend all of the right calls were made. I agree with Gobert, that the Jazz likely win that game. Nevertheless, I think there are things we can learn from the experience.

• The Sixers changed their offense to just target Bojan Bogdanovic in overtime, even to the extent of taking the ball out of their MVP candidate’s hands. That’s the second team in a week that did that, and it’s got to be a huge worry for the Jazz. If this is happening now, in the regular season, teams are going to target it for four quarters in the playoffs. We’ll see if a week of rest rejuvenates Bogdanovic, but if it doesn’t, the Jazz will either need to change their scheme to try to hide Bogdanovic more or simply sub him out at the end of games — cratering his value to the team.

• Mitchell finished the game with 10 consecutive misses. He was on tilt because of the officiating, but yeah, that wasn’t great. He’s an inconsistent clutch player, sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddening.

• The Jazz weren’t able to get their usual assortment of offensive rebounds against the big, physical Sixers. I think that’s a legitimate concern for the playoffs, too: will the Jazz get all the free second chances they got in most of their games during the regular season?

• Embiid is so good. It’s either him or LeBron James for MVP this year, I think.

• After scoring 0 against the Pelicans, Joe Ingles was brilliant offensively for 16 points against the Sixers, save for one bonehead turnover in the fourth and subsequent and-one foul. Conley was great, too, even despite the lack of whistles in his favor.

• I thought it was interesting that the Sixers had Simmons change who he was guarding in the clutch: sometimes, he was on Mitchell, other times, he was on Conley or Bogdanovic. I thought the Jazz should have done more to avoid Simmons in the pick and roll: it doesn’t make too much sense to involve two top-ten defenders in the league in one play, and the Jazz’s ballhandlers already had their hands full with Embiid protecting the rim.

• The Jazz nearly won this game through sheer math alone... limiting a team in 2021 to 8-25 shooting from three is a huge advantage. The same was also almost true against the Pelicans; against the Pelicans, they couldn’t protect the paint, against the Sixers, they couldn’t stop sending them to the line.

And, yeah, the refs had something to do with that.

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