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Bob Ryan

Stop crying foul

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 8, 2010

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Maybe we can ask the players to just play nice; you know, not touch anyone.

Or perhaps they could do it as they all learned on the playground, by calling their own fouls.

But I’m not sure David Stern and friends would go for that, so they’ve all got to reconcile themselves to the idea that referees are here to stay, and the players and coaches must learn to live with them.

For the one-zillionth time, is it necessary to point out that referees have a vital role in the conduct of any basketball game? They determine two things, the first being who plays and the second being how the game will be played. That being the case, the least that can be said about the referees as a whole is that they have the impact of at least a good player, if not necessarily a great one, on the outcome of each game.

Officiating has been front and center in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. No one is particularly happy with any of them. Some of the criticism is justified. Some is not. You’d like to think the principals have all been around long enough to offer a fair and accurate assessment of what goes on, but, of course, they seldom do. There may be instances in the 41 years I’ve covered this league when a losing coach has admitted that the officiating has done right by his team, but I’m sure that total would be roughly equivalent to the number of Kendrick Perkins career 3-pointers.

Of course, it would always help if officials could assure us they knew the answer to the one question every basketball official, at every level of the game, should be asked prior to each tip-off.

“Why are you here?’’

And the answer, I believe, should be . . .

“To promote the smooth flow of the game.’’

That’s it; nothing more and nothing less. The role of the officials is to bear witness to the proceedings, rule on the necessary technicalities that involve violations and such, determine who gets the ball out of bounds when necessary, keep an eye on goaltending (almost a thankless and impossible task at the highest level), and, most of all, have a sure sense of what’s a foul and what isn’t, not to mention when something is a foul and when it isn’t.

Far too many referees demonstrate clearly by their actions they really have no idea why they are there. This usually manifests itself in an excess of whistle-blowing, recent Exhibit A being Game 1 of this series, when, if you didn’t know better, you’d think Joe Crawford, Joe DeRosa, and Derrick Stafford had made a pact to prevent a real, honest-to-goodness NBA playoff game from ever taking shape.

The Celtics never did get into any kind of flow, and the Lakers have Pau Gasol to thank for giving them something on which to hang their hat.

Game 2 was an entirely different species. Ken Mauer, Monty McCutchen, and Mike Callahan had an idea. They actually seemed to be calling the game they saw, rather than one they wished to impose on us.

Phil Jackson had a little postgame dissertation about how the officials had taken Derek Fisher out of the game as he was guarding Ray Allen, and how as a result Allen was able to run routes that freed him up for all those threes.

What he didn’t say was that Fisher opened up the game by doing his Troy Polamalu impression on Allen, so they tooted him to the bench, and properly so. If what he was doing to Allen — and it was happening right in front of me — was acceptable, then just issue helmets and shoulder pads and get on with it.

Did they call a lot of fouls? Yup. You know why? It was because most of them were actually being committed. The Celtics’ front line got into deep collective foul trouble because they couldn’t handle either Andrew Bynum or Gasol, who wound up combining for 46 points and 14 rebounds. The Lakers people, and that includes Kobe Bryant, got in trouble because they couldn’t handle Rajon Rondo.

Right from the start, the game was allowed to breathe, however. Good noncalls proliferated, and the Celtics, who were Sunday night’s protagonists, benefited. There was one particular second-half sequence under the LA basket in which the players were allowed to battle through blocked shots and all kinds of stuff without anything being called, and you knew without a scintilla of a doubt that the Game 1 crew would have found something.

Jackson was upset because Fisher was nailed for his fouls and because Kobe was in foul trouble. But do you think Doc Rivers liked having four frontcourt players in foul trouble before the half, forcing him to use Shelden Williams with near-disastrous consequences?

The Lakers shot 41 free throws to Boston’s 26, and that, in my judgment, was totally warranted. That spoke to the nature of the game. The Celtics’ inability to control Messrs. Gasol and Bynum is a major concern.

Officiating in the NBA has undergone a sea change in general philosophy over the last 15 years or so. This all began when Darrell Garretson was put in charge and an effort was made to standardize officiating, as if it were a science, rather than an art embellished with common sense. The league worked best when there were strong-personality refs, so powerful that all anyone needed to identify them was their first names.

We had the likes of Mendy, Richie, Jake, Jack, and perhaps most famous of all, Earl. They had strong personalities, yes, and what they also had was a sense of nightly dynamics. They had bad nights because they were human, but they also had many good nights when they demonstrated that, yes, they knew very well why they were on that floor.

But in this Garretson system these referees have all been stripped of personality. Even Crawford has been neutered. They have to fill out reports and watch nightly postgame video and their signals are uniform and they are all boring officiating robots. Most importantly, they are refereeing to please their supervisors. In other words, they too often referee to pass the test, rather than to promote the smooth flow of the game.

Mauer and his cohorts seemed to get it, and Mauer himself showed me something the other night. I forget who was involved in a little dust-up, but rather than indulge in the new cop-out known as the double technical, he simply informed the perps he had seen enough. Cut the you-know-what and play ball.

That’s refereeing. Trust me, if we get more games like the one he worked, there will be a smooth flow, and never mind what the losing coach says afterward.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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