The calls have been scrutinized enough that both teams thought they were wronged after Game 3. Ime Udoka and Marcus Smart spoke out against the ruling that Smart was not shooting when he drew a foul in the final seconds of that game. Bucks general manager Jon Horst, even after his team’s win, felt irritated enough to risk a fine while criticizing the referees to The Athletic‘s Eric Nehm. the NBA‘s last two-minute report showed five missed calls in a game ultimately decided by a split second.
Just about everybody on both sides seems to have a gripe in this series, but Brown understands the referees are in a tough spot. Even after feeling that Game 4 brought some “very interesting” officiating, Brown showed some appreciation for the job’s difficulty. In this series, pitting the relentless Giannis Antetokounmpo against a stout Celtics defense with physical veterans on both sides, somebody’s going to deal with frustration on just about every play.
“I bet it’s tough trying to officiate with a dominant player like Giannis on the court,” Brown said. “Because he’s aggressive all the time. So in real time, it might look harder than it does on camera.”
To dive deeper into that sentiment, I sought out an expert in the field: Steve Javie, now a rules analyst for ESPN and ABC. Before transitioning into television, Javie spent 25 years as one of the most well-respected NBA referees, officiating everybody from Larry Bird to LeBronJames. Excluding the first two seasons of his NBA career (the Basketball-Reference database does not go back that far for referees), Javie officiated 1,374 games in the league, including Michael Jordan’s final outing. Javie knows as well as anyone what it takes to call a playoff series.
“In the playoffs, the players have always competed at an incredible level compared to the regular season,” Javie said. “As you well know, players can’t compete at this intensity level for 82 games. It’s just physically and mentally impossible. It’s funny because I love when Jeff Van Gundy says, ‘Well, they’re refereeing differently.’ No, they’re playing differently.”
In the case of this series, that means Antetokounmpo barreling down the lane like his life depends on the outcome. It means Al Horford other Grant Williams throwing their bodies around to deter Antetokounmpo one way or another. It means Jrue Holiday other Wesley Matthews hounding Boston’s ballhandlers. It means Smart showing even more eagerness to take a charge.
Antetokounmpo, who averaged 11.4 free throw attempts per game during the regular season, puts constant pressure on the rim. He has averaged 20.8 drives per game during the first five games of the series — and when he does drive, he’s doing so with enormous strides, lightning-quick changes of direction and enough power to play through all sorts of contact. Brown said the Bucks’ two-time NBA MVP forces the Celtics to be “extremely disciplined” and “extremely focused.” If they slip at all, Brown said the resulting personal fouls will leave the Celtics players thinking, “Come on, man, how did they call that?”
“He does make (the referees) make decisions every time he has the ball,” Javie said. “And that’s why you really can’t take a breath. You can’t exhale. You’ve gotta sit there and go, ‘here we go,’ and just wait until the next whistle and next timeout when you can take a break. But he does challenge you on that. And the way Boston plays defense, which is excellent, that’s a great defensive team, they’re going to challenge you, also.”
Javie understands why some people like officiating Antetokounmpo to refereeing Shaquille O’Neal. The level of contact those two take on and dish out on a possession-to-possession basis is close to unrivaled. But to Javie, a different type of player pops up as the better parallel.
“Shaq obviously wasn’t as agile and didn’t start at half court saying, ‘OK, here it comes,’” said Javie, who retired in 2011. “I understand the comparison with the contact, but I think it reminds me more of the players who were smaller guards. Like an (Allen) Iverson used to drive down the lane, and you’re going to have to blow the whistle one way or another because I’m creating contact, and is it legal or not? He’s going to make you make a decision because there’s going to be contact on this play.”
For an NBA referee, the playoffs represent the big leagues. Those chosen to don the whistle during this part of the schedule have been picked for that role because of their success throughout the years. Javie said during certain regular-season matchups, he and some of the veteran referees would need to “help along” younger officials, even training them during the middle of games. Once the playoffs hit, Javie said the crews have more trust in each other because “everyone deserves to be there.”
The playoffs also bring a heightened level of scrutiny. Before officiating in a series like this, Javie said he would do homework on the teams, just like the players and coaches do. He would watch game film of recent action. He would scout the tendencies of each player. He would know to be aware of the Williams-Antetokounmpo matchup because it’s likely to be physical. Javie would know that if Smart is in secondary defense, he’s not afraid to take a charge.
Though unrelated to the Celtics-Bucks series, Javie said he also would prepare himself for players like ChrisPaul who are looking to “fool the referee.” Javie would want to be ready for all of the tricks, just in case. He said if a referee fails to match the intensity of the players, the game will leave him or her behind.
“Anybody off the bench who’s a disruptor becomes even more physical when they come in,” Javie said of the postseason. “So, it’s all the homework that referees have to do. Giannis, obviously with his type of play, he presents a couple of problems because No. 1, he’s very agile and he’s also very physical. And he challenges the defense and, at the same time, challenges the referees. The kind of challenge that he presents, when I see it, is the fact that he’s always trying to go downhill and getting that head of steam. So most of the time, it seems he’s getting by his primary defender.
“The hardest part as a referee is because you’re refereeing that matchup of Giannis and his primary defender, and it’s usually that secondary defender that slides in to try to take that charge: Marcus Smart or anybody else in the game who’s not his primary defender. And that presents challenges for the referees, but at the same time because of watching film and watching tape, as you’re talking to your crew, you have to be aware of saying, ‘Guys, we all need to help on that secondary defender sliding in to see if that’s going to be an offensive foul and/or a block.’”
In the playoffs, the most physical games are the most challenging to referee, according to Javie. When asked about the most physical matchups of his career, he brought up the old pistons–bulls other curtsy-Bull’s slugfests. After some of the biggest games, Javie said he and the refs around him would be so worn down physically and mentally that they needed about 20 minutes to decompress. They would sit in the locker room in uniform, wiped out.
“I think the more physical the games are, the more challenging mentally they are,” Javie said. “And that’s probably the part of the game that I miss the most from being on the floor: that mental challenge to meet that intensity level.”
Compared to some of the battles he worked, Javie chuckled when asked about the physicality between the Celtics and Bucks.
“I think it’s physical,” Javie said, “but if you turn on some games back in the ’90s and early 2000s, you’ll see some real physicality compared to now. So to me, I kind of giggle at the people who think, ‘Oh, this is really physical.’ It’s physical, yes, because nobody’s used to it. In 82 games of the season, you’re not used to this stuff.”
Though it may seem like deciding how to call such a competitive series would be taxing, Javie embraced it. Referees go through life knowing every whistle they blow — or don’t blow — will leave one side disappointed. Especially in the postseason, officials know to expect heat from anyone involved: players, coaches, executives and fans.
“All I can say is welcome to the playoffs,” said Javie. “It’s happened for 75 years, and it’s going to happen after you and I are gone. Each team is going to complain, and each coach is trying to get one up. When Phil Jackson would say some things or Pat Riley would say certain things about the refereeing, it’s just the nature of the business and the nature of the game. They think they’re trying to get an edge. They think they can say something that’s worth the fine. As an official, you can’t pay attention to it.”
(Photo of Steve Javie: David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)