Like most, Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president of referee development and training, was distressed by the missed call late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Lakers-Celtics matchup. In the final seconds, LeBron James was slapped on the arm by Jayson Tatum while attempting a game-winning layup. The game went into overtime, with Boston pulling out a 125–121 win.
“We’re always disappointed when we don’t live up to the charge of excellence up against delivering on a final play or a play that impacts the latter portions of the game,” says McCutchen. “So clearly we were disappointed and are going to work to eliminate these mistakes moving forward.”
McCutchen attributed the missed call to “a lack of fundamentals” from the referees involved. As James drove, the baseline referee, Jacyn Goble, was in motion in an effort to gain the best angle. While Goble’s intentions were good, the end result left him in a position where he was unable to clearly see the foul.
“We want our referees in a still position,” says McCutchen. “We want movement to be purposeful, meaning, ‘Oh, someone stood in front of me. I need to make a definitive step to the left one step.’ But we can’t allow ourselves to get into rapid movement at the same time that the play is coming to a head.
“Now, we’re human beings. In this instance, we were trying to get to a better angle instead of trusting the angle we had. We could've stayed in that original position, found the defensive player’s arms to get to point of contact. Point of contact is something that we work really hard at. Down low, when a post player is bringing a ball up from down low, point of contact might be low. Jump shots, it might be high. On this layup, it was on the left arm. And we have to do a good job of being in a still, dependable position to see that arm and get to the point of contact. This instance, we didn’t do that. We paid the price for the lack of that mechanical fundamental, and we’re going to continue to teach and hold accountable to those future forms of excellence.”
There will be no further fallout from the officiating error in Boston. The referees association has publicly apologized, an unprecedented move. In terms of addressing the issue in the rule book, the NBA’s options are limited. Introducing more replay is an idea McCutchen is open to, but he notes that in live ball situations like James’s, using replay is problematic.
“We’re not football,” says McCutchen. “We don’t come to a dead stop after every play. Our game is a free-flowing game. Let’s say there was a flag that you think you should be able to throw out on a noncall. Well, you can well imagine that someone might throw the flag out just to stop a fast break that they know is about to take place.
“There’s no easy answer here. Now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be examined. I don’t know whether it’ll be examined. That’s for the competition committee to decide. I do know that the NBA, most certainly NBA referee operations and the NBA referees, they want to get plays right. And if technology can help and we can figure out the right way to implement a rule in which it can help the game—a coach’s challenge is a good example—NBA referees are willing to adapt. Well, certainly referee operations and the NBA office is willing to adapt. The key is can you find a meaningful rule that serves the game, not just serves the masses that are upset about an individual imperfection? If we can find that, then there’s an opportunity for the competition committee to explore that. And most certainly, I, in the role I have, am open to change that impacts the game positively.”
On Tuesday, in his first game since the loss to Boston, James scored 28 points in the Lakers’ 128–123 overtime win over the Knicks. He went to the free throw line seven times, close to his season average (6.2). On his first drive to the basket, he drew a foul on R.J. Barrett, picking up a three-point play. After the game, James was asked about how the team bounced back.
“The difference between here and Boston is self-explanatory,” says James. After noting key moments in the fourth quarter he added, “The game was decided by the players. In Boston, the game was decided by the refs. … What happened in Boston is what happened. Tonight the game was decided, end of regulation, by the players.”
McCutchen understands James’s frustration. The Lakers are working to claw their way into the playoff race, and every game counts. And for James, who the NBA also admitted was fouled at the end of regulation in the closing moments of a double-overtime loss to Dallas, it has been an especially difficult stretch. McCutchen says he is confident the issue that led to the missed call in Boston can be corrected and that referees will work tirelessly to be in the best position to get every call right.
“It really is impactful to referees to miss calls,” says McCutchen. “They’re not flippant about it. They don’t leave with a lack of remorse. But you have to move on. You have to get to the next game. That doesn’t help the teams that were aggrieved. We understand that. But we have to continue to pursue excellent work even up against our imperfections. That way you turn one call and you sort of nip it right there instead of turning it into a progression of bad calls.”