The second-round playoff series between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets has enough talent to fill a decade’s worth of NBA Finals games, so naturally all anyone wants to do is talk about the referees. Golden State won Game 1, 104–100, though the Rockets had a chance to tie it after Chris Paul stole the ball from Kevin Durant with 17 seconds remaining. Houston’s James Harden took a contested 3-pointer from the top of the arc, but the effort clanked off the rim, Harden tumbled to the ground, and Golden State survived.
There was an epilogue of chaos, and Paul earned his second technical foul of the game and an ejection for an interaction with a ref. Replays of Harden’s miss showed that Draymond Green encroached slightly into his landing area (while Harden kicked out his legs while airborne). This alone would not have been too controversial, but a Warriors player sliding under a Rockets jump-shooter had been a theme for much of the first half. The officials didn’t call fouls then, either.
The NBA rulebook states that “[d]efenders may not move into the landing area of an airborne shooter.” Golden State guard Klay Thompson did this with enough frequency during the first half that ABC play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said that he was fortunate to not have four fouls called against him (Thompson had one foul at the time).
The commentating crew brought in rules analyst Steve Javie for his perspective, and the retired NBA official said that he believed the close-outs in question were indeed illegal. Later in the game, Paul drained a 3-pointer as the Warriors’ Shaun Livingston crowded his landing space. The officials held their whistles, and Paul earned the first of his two technical fouls for protesting the non-call.
After the game, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said that the officials told him at halftime that they had missed those calls on the Warriors’ close-outs.
The Warriors should be familiar with this type of play, as their former center Zaza Pachulia helped make it infamous. In the 2017 postseason, Pachulia injured then–Spurs star Kawhi Leonard when he slid his feet under Leonard during a 3-point attempt. The ensuing ankle sprain knocked Leonard out of the playoffs, and the league updated the rulebook in the offseason to address the issue. Dubbed “the Zaza rule,” it lets officials call a flagrant or technical foul if they deem a player’s close-out to be intentional or unnaturally reckless. “It’s 100 percent for the safety of the players,” Joe Borgia, NBA senior vice president of replay and referee operations, said at the time.
No one was injured during any close-outs on Sunday, but Houston’s hopes of winning the series were certainly dinged. As the league prepares its officiating report for the game, all Rockets general manager Daryl Morey can do is shrug.