You don’t often see NBA referees get bailed out by the players they’re meant to officiate. Or maybe you do! Maybe—because refereeing in the NBA has been so shitty for so long—you could say that every NBA game to one degree or another is a bunch of cool basketball players imposing structure, or at least redemptive or diverting spectacle, onto a contest that is sort of fundamentally fucked by screwy officiating. Maybe you’re saying that right now, with all the gesticulating. I’m into this take! I think you’re onto something. Run with it!
What I think is perfectly fair to say is that fans are far more acquainted with the concept of a bail-out whistle than they are with a bail-out soaring-from-out-of-nowhere block. The latter is what Wednesday night’s [don’t say pivotal don’t say pivotal don’t say pivotal] pivotal Game 4 produced, during a chaotic fourth-quarter stretch when it seemed like both the referees and the Milwaukee Bucks had finally lost control of the proceedings. Whistles had been spotty all night. Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, brazen practitioners of the dreaded dark arts, seemed to have baited and flopped their way into the referees’ heads. The refs—James Capers, David Guthrie, and Courtney Kirkland—seemed to perhaps understand this on some sort of subconscious level, because while they were rewarding the Suns for hunting fouls, they were also using late whistles to rescue Giannis Antetokounmpo from many of his head-down, go-nowhere bully drives into a packed lane.
Whether that all evened out, or could be measured by free-throw attempts or total fouls or whatever, kind of misses the point. The whistle is meant to establish the boundaries for acceptable play. But NBA referees stink real bad, and unfortunately the point value of a free throw doesn’t float to the level of confidence earned by the guys blowing the whistles. When you notice play on the court start to veer away from, like, True And Honest Hoopage and in the direction of ref-baiting—as it has been doing for whole decades now—that is because referees have long established that they are more like whistle vendors than capable officials, and that it’s safer and more reliable to transact directly with referees for free throws than to play the game straight up. Wednesday night, because the officiating really had started to feel like a long and increasingly absurd sequence of baited fouls followed by deeply suspect make-up calls, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around both teams had plenty of cause for frustration. It was a mess.
The problem reached its horrifying nadir with just under four minutes left in regulation and the Suns leading by three points. Chris Paul, who for most of the night looked either physically unwell or mentally boomed or both, used a Deandre Ayton screen to get into the paint and draw a couple defenders, then jump-passed the ball to no one in particular, leading to a dreaded live-ball turnover. Giannis picked it up and pushed the other way, then hit teammate Jrue Holiday cutting from the right. The last defender back was Devin Booker, who’d had an absolutely sublime offensive game but who’d been sent to the bench with five fouls early in the fourth quarter on an infuriatingly soft whistle for inconsequential contact on a larger player, away from the ball. Monty Williams grit his teeth and left Booker on the bench for an incredible five full minutes of the fourth quarter of a winnable Finals game, dreading basically this exact scenario. Now Booker was back on the floor and in a position where he’d have to choose, in a split second, between passively letting the Bucks pull to within a point on a transition layup, or giving a nice hard foul and forcing Holiday to the stripe, but also disqualifying himself for the rest of the night.
He made the wrong choice. Holiday drove to the cup and Booker, who’d carried the Suns all night and without whom the Suns would’ve been fully cooked, wrapped Holiday around the waist with his right arm and came down on his shoulders and shooting arm with the left, in a textbook layup-stopping intentional foul. And the referees just … swallowed their whistles.
The foul was so obvious that Mike Breen just calmly described it in realtime as if it’d been called, before gasping and shouting, “They didn’t call it!” Giannis dropped in the follow to bring the score to within a point, but in the moment this felt like the referees had made a determination about who was going to win the game. Booker had been unstoppable all night, and he’d just sacrificed himself to keep a measly two points off the board, and the referees simply looked the other way. The teams traded buckets and leads over the next couple possessions but it was hard to escape the feeling that it would inevitably be Booker, who should’ve been disqualified, who tried to foul out of the basketball game, who would do some cool shit with the basketball and win the game in the end, and then Milwaukee’s fans would surely tear their arena to the ground in protest. Sure enough, with about one minute left and the Suns trailing by a bucket, Booker used a dribble hand-off to get pointed downhill, dragged P.J. Tucker and Giannis into his wake, and then coolly floated a delicious alley-oop pass to Ayton, who was all alone on the left side of the lane. And then this happened:
Giannis smiled when asked about this play after the game and said, “I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you.” It’s worth a closer look. Booker rocketing around the hand-off puts the Bucks into a scramble; Giannis finds himself in the unpleasant position of having to contest Booker in the midrange with only Pat Connaughton behind him and only Jrue Holiday beneath him, neither of whom can do anything at all to stop Giannis’s man from scoring down in the restricted area. It’s an impossible spot. Maybe Draymond Green would process and execute the perfect move to somehow deter Booker and then take away the alley-oop pass, but Giannis isn’t Draymond Green, because no one is. The best he can do is force Booker into his second option, the pass, on a night when Booker seemingly couldn’t miss from exactly that shooting range. But really Giannis is just a stanchion there, pivoting uselessly in no-man’s land while the Suns generate what in 99 percent of cases is the highest possible quality shot.
This is where it helps to be an absolutely unprecedented physical marvel. Somehow Giannis possesses all of the height, length, coordination, explosive athletic ability, and twitchy instincts to go from flat-footed at the free-throw line to swatting away a dunk from one of the league’s premier lob threats in the blink of an eye. There’s maybe one or two other players in all of basketball who’d stand a chance of making this exact play:
Circumstances weren’t done covering for the refs. The Bucks failed to capitalize on the huge block despite two decent midrange looks from Khris Middleton in one possession. The Suns took the ball back with about 40 seconds left on the clock and a chance at a game-tying or go-ahead bucket. Who better to orchestrate this opportunity than veteran playmaker and celebrated Point God Chris Paul?
Not real great! For a guy with a long and painful track record of flaming out in the playoffs, it is simply not great at all to faceplant on the court and dribble the ball away with 34 seconds left in a one-possession Finals game. Milwaukee’s late lead grew to six on their next possession following a Booker miss, and they cruised from there to a 109-103 victory to tie the series. It was all very lucky, in the end: A game that stood a very good chance of being remembered forever for swallowed whistles will instead be remembered for what might be the defining highlight of Antetokounmpo’s career and what might even be the defining lowlight of Chris Paul’s. The players rescued the series from the brink, and with any luck at all will stand a solid chance of deciding how it plays out from here.