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Seeing NBA officials go to the replay center at midcourt has become a commonplace yet frustrating aspect of these playoffs, with refs determining if contact is worth a flagrant foul.
What’s a flagrant? Is it a Flagrant 2? What happened to the hard playoff foul, to reasonably stop a player from scoring on a touch foul and going for a 3-point play?
The interpretations of the rules have changed through the years and with multiple camera angles equipped in every arena, there’s no lack of officiating experts at home or in the stands.
Monty McCutchen was a longtime official and now works in the league office as head of officiating. He spoke to Yahoo Sports recently, addressing concerns that have been on full display over the past few weeks.
The data shows the officials are blowing the whistle more but getting more calls right, even though McCutchen admits he understands the frustration with the frequency of reviews.
“I do think it’s a fair criticism,” McCutchen said to Yahoo Sports. “I would say then, that we’re sort of betwixt, in between a rock and a hard place there. Based on our desire for the health of our players. It is a difficult spot for our referees to be in. Do I think we’ve gone a couple of times when we didn’t need to? Yes, I do. And we try to train and calibrate that.
“And the reason we’re blowing our whistle more is because the play is more and more assertive and more aggressive. And in some cases, even rough.”
The “playoff foul,” as so many have come to expect and appreciate through the years, doesn’t exist anymore. Flagrant fouls in the last three playoff years are double the amount of the previous three years before that, which McCutchen believes is a product of the pace-and-space era.
It seems obvious when the notion is presented aloud, but it’s not that there’s more rough play — there’s just less congestion for incidental contact. Almost everything has to be done with intention, thus blurring the lines.
“It’s hard to get windup and impact when all 10 players are playing in the paint like Charles Barkley did,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “But when you start playing in space, you get a lot more of the [Memphis wing] Dillon Brooks chase down, a lot more of the layup where someone is recovering like [Dallas’] Dorian Finney-Smith.”
Hardly anyone would dispute the Brooks Flagrant 2 foul on Gary Payton II, which resulted in a fractured elbow for Payton. But a play like Finney-Smith’s foul on Devin Booker in Game 5 of the Mavericks-Suns series was up for debate, and McCutchen walked through his explanation of the Flagrant 1 assigned to Finney-Smith.
It was among a few plays McCutchen used as a visual step-by-step guide to explain what the league sees in the replay and the criteria.
Unnecessary contact is the baseline for a Flagrant 1, while also considering windup, impact, follow-through, potential for injury and if the play results in a scrum — the element of control officials are tagged with in order to prevent physical altercations.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, get out of the way NBA referees,’ ” said McCutchen, as if he has direct cameras into America’s living rooms. “But the second thing we don’t do and uphold standards properly, we have three people suspended because they were involved in a fight. But when we prevent those fights through our work, it’s hard to say and prove that we prevented a fight.”
Finney-Smith’s foul looked like a classic hard foul at first blush, but McCutchen pointed to Finney-Smith’s burst of speed as equivalent to a windup.
“You see a beaten player,” McCutchen said. “That launch of the body … he’s gonna bang him at a vulnerable spot. That launch, that acceleration of speed becomes a windup. Not with the arm, the arm is a normal foul there.”
Booker wasn’t airborne the way Payton II was, so the closing speed wasn’t as drastic, and it appeared Finney-Smith went up while Booker was in his gather — thus making it a bit murky.
“But it’s more of a launch angle,” McCutchen said. “If he goes up to go up high to try to block that ball, and you have this body contact, then that’s more than likely going to be a common foul.”
In eras past, officials would consider intent and play on the ball — the old letter of the law versus spirit of the law. That expectation is often reflected by the announcers groaning and fans crowing everywhere because it doesn’t feel the same, and it feels like the league is trending toward too soft of an area.
Making a play on the ball doesn’t absolve a player of getting a flagrant, McCutchen said, but not making a play on the ball certainly opens the door toward the likelihood of a flagrant. He admits it’s a “one-way street” — an alphabet soup of things the league has to consider during these reviews.
If it’s confusing to us, it’s very clear to them.
A play McCutchen used as another example, this time a clean foul, was one in the fourth quarter of the first round between Memphis and Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns drove to the basket and was met with what appeared to be a moderate foul from Jaren Jackson Jr. Brandon Clarke blocked Towns’ shot on the foul, and Towns went down in a heap.
It didn’t look like anything dangerous, but honestly, neither did Finney-Smith’s play. McCutchen points out that Jackson Jr. wasn’t beaten on the play since he was moving toward help position, and while there was body contact, it didn’t rise to the conditions of anything flagrant.
“Jackson here, doesn’t launch his body,” McCutchen explained as the video played. “Big kind of fall from Towns, as Booker. Look at the difference in launch angles. He’s late, takes a good, hard foul, but there’s no launch. He’s late and wants to get a piece of flesh. But he does it in a way where he gets over.”
He pulls up another play that, if one had to guess with no prior knowledge, would constitute a flagrant foul. Giannis Antetokounmpo turns with his elbow and nails Boston’s Grant Williams in the face.
With Antetokounmpo’s elbow being up high, McCutchen said Spurs great Tim Duncan used to turn on his post moves like that similarly, and Antetokounmpo’s play was ruled a common foul.
McCutchen believes, though, consistency is what they’re aiming for. A flagrant in November is one in the play-in tournament is one in the conference semifinals — not up for interpretation based on the stakes of the contest.
“I can’t have 75 people, or in this case, 36 playoff officials, deciding on their own what the spirit of the rule is,” McCutchen said. “We have some of our announcers from a past generation that want to fit everything into, ‘Aww, that’s just playoff basketball.’ But we’re not looking at it from a ‘playoff basketball’ standpoint.”
The NBA sends videos to teams laying out the difference between a good foul and something that would trigger a review. One thing that’s certain to at least garner an extra look is contact to the head. If it’s incidental, it can be dismissed as a common foul.
Anything beyond that seems likely to earn a Flagrant 1.
“One of the big issues that we dealt with over the last five years, at least since I’ve taken this job, is this real sense that our players’ safety and health is of great importance to us,” McCutchen said. “And head injuries, in particular, across all professional sports, is something not to be mistakenly put to the side as insignificant.”
None of this is an exact science. The NBA is juggling so many rightful objectives that don’t always parallel each other. Keeping the game in order and safe, allowing for reasonable intensity, being consistent with the way it's called things through the season illustrated by its points of emphasis — it seems nobody will really be happy.
But to the notion of a “playoff foul,” it’s like doing 75 mph in a 70 zone — attempt at your own risk.
“When you live on the edge of these hard fouls, like your coaches are asking you to do, you absolutely are risking the edge of the difference between a hard foul and a flagrant foul,” McCutchen said. “That’s the nature of playoff basketball.”