NBA Finals 2022 – The rules, plays and processes referees are watching the closest

The NBA playoffs are full of moments that can swing a series: a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, a late and-1 bucket or an alley-oop dunk in front of the home crowd.

Or in some cases, it might be the blow of the referee’s whistle, as a late-game block/charge call or an overturned bucket could help make the difference between who advances and who goes home.

With the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics headed for a best-of-three series in the NBA Finals, what will officials be watching the closest? Are any points of emphasis expanded when the games matter most?

ESPN NBA insider Tim MacMahon caught up with Monty McCutchen, NBA senior vice president for referee development and training, for the X’s and O’s of challenges, whether the last-two-minute reports should be expanded, how Finals officials are chosen and the protocols of removing points off the board after a review.

What is reviewable during an NBA game? Are any of those parameters expanded during the playoffs?

“Nothing is expanded. Our rules in the preseason in October are our rules in June for conference finals and [the NBA] Finals. That’s a really important distinction to be made.

“The reviewable matters are a little more difficult [to explain], because we have 16 triggers and each of them have their own set of reviewable matters. We’re looking to maybe unify that. For example, you can always look to see if a shot-clock violation took place or not. You can see whether someone [was out of bounds when they] jumped before the shot. You can see if there was an eight-second violation.

“On coaches’ challenges, reviewable matters are out of bounds, goaltending and a foul called against your team. Let’s say that you think the opponent’s best player was the fouler, but they called it on their seventh man. You can’t challenge that thinking that it’s on their best player. It has to be called on your team.”

Can referees overturn another call they notice while reviewing something else?

“There’s a difference in whether it’s a challenge or whether it’s a review. If it’s a coach’s challenge, let’s say the official thinks it’s an offensive foul and we call it a defensive foul. We most certainly can get that play called correctly if it is clear and conclusive, but it must be tied proximate to the play. You can’t go over and see a play out of pick-and-roll and see some other play that you didn’t call — a guy pushed off in the corner — and get that play called correctly. It’s only what’s tied to the play that you’re challenging.”

Will a late call impact any of the remaining NBA Finals games between the Celtics and Warriors? Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

How have the review rules evolved in recent years? What is the process for reviewing a call?

“Any time we have a high-profile play, the competition committee takes it under consideration. When instant replay was put in, it was put in for last-second shots. It was one paragraph in our rulebook. It’s 4 1/2 pages now.

“Playoffs drive a lot of this, because it’s the most important time of the year. We noticed one season and postseason that we were incorrectly calling a lot of off-ball fouls as someone was shooting. So we added that one to help determine where the first illegal contact was, because often when you process the play, you see it’s illegal and it takes time to blow the whistle. In the meantime, the shot’s in the air, but the first illegal contact occurred prior to that.

“So play often dictates change, if we see the style of play starting to change to some degree. Clear-path fouls became very difficult to adjudicate in real time; therefore, it was added because it’s such an important penalty with two free throws and the ball. All of these things take place through an organic sense.”

What is the official protocol for retroactively removing points off the board, such as Max Strus’ made shot during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics? At what point does it become nonreviewable?

“We understand that there is a point of no return. This rule has been in place in excess of 15 or 20 years, but the way it used to work is [a referee] would do the little twirly-bird signal and they’d go look at the next timeout to see whether that was a 2-pointer or a 3. So if one happened at, let’s say, 11:52 of the third quarter, you might not get to that until 5:50, 6:50, somewhere under that seven-minute mark during that first mandatory timeout.

“Several years ago, in an effort to speed up play so that we took less time, we instituted the fact that we were going to review all 2s and 3s, initiated by the replay center, not by referees. Therefore, you don’t see referees give the twirly-bird signal now, because every single 2 or 3 is triggered.

“When one happens in Game 7, it garnered more attention, but there were 15 other incidents where points were taken off the board this year from a team — including Miami, ironically — throughout the season. Now, there were probably hundreds of close calls to being out of bounds where they would have reviewed that in-house. Let’s say Strus, in that case, would have been inbounds by two or three inches. It still would have been reviewed.

“One of the key things that I’d like our fan base to know is that the process is much faster now. In my career, we were waiting on that mandatory timeout to go review it ourselves as referees on the floor. Now, instead of that mandatory timeout that occurred much later, we were able to communicate it back to the table and it was corrected at, I think, 8:28, saving several minutes off the old policy.

“We can’t announce those in live action. As the ball’s being dribbled up, no one wants an announcement that interrupts flow through disappointment. If you hear that while you’re going up for a layup and you’ve just lost three points, that can really impact play. Secondarily, if we did it in live action and just took points off without announcing it, you could well imagine the confusion that would take for the team to look up and think that they had three points without understanding why they don’t have three points and then arguing about it during live action. So we think the first dead ball is the first opportune time.

“Now, in Strus’ instance, there were two dead balls prior to when it was announced. Both were fairly quick, though. One was an out-of-bounds in the backcourt where we give them the ball as soon as they’re ready, and the other had some element of small confusion because there was a defensive three [seconds] involved, so it didn’t get announced. Those were about 30 seconds before it got announced, so it wasn’t in our view a material difference to the outcome of the game, those 30 seconds.”

Are points of emphasis sent to referees during the playoffs, and the Finals in particular?

Note: Teams are sent points-of-emphasis videos every month throughout the regular season and playoffs.

“The driving force of that is to allow teams to coach to it. If we do a good job of consistent work, from October to November to December, January, February, it’s really incumbent on my group to do the same things in April, May and June, because the teams have spent a lot of time coaching to that. We don’t change things up in the playoffs.

“One of the things that I do in the playoffs is I remind our group that, hey, we were really good with non-basketball moves this year, right? Don’t let up. Because that’s one of the criticisms that you always hear: ‘Oh, they won’t call it in the playoffs.’ I think we’ve proven [that criticism wrong] over the past several years.

“Now, don’t interpret my enthusiasm for consistency with perfection. We miss calls. When we miss calls it’s really easy for everyone to say, ‘Oh, see, they’re not calling it in the playoffs,’ when in fact we are. “It’s really important that we don’t feed into the idea that, ‘Oh, that’s a playoff foul.’ … I don’t drive that.”

How are referees evaluated? What criteria determine which referees call the Finals?

“The process is the same to determine who referees playoff games in the first round as it is to referee the Finals. We run through the process every round.

“Referee operations consists of myself, Joey Crawford, E.F. Rush, Mark Wunderlich, Bennett Salvatore and Bernie Fryer. There are six of us that make up referee operations as the quote-unquote “experts.” I use that term without any sense of hubris, but we have dedicated our lives to this and we do care about it deeply, and we really have worked at knowing the nuances of our craft.

“We make up a percentage, the teams make up a percentage and [so does] the analytical department. That is independent reviewers. That is not ex-referees, it’s trained reviewers. They have every call and non-call graded for a referee all season long — thousands and thousands of decisions per referee.

“We put it into the matrix and it spits out 36 names. Then we go to 28 for the second round, 20 for the third and 12 [for the Finals].

NBA Finals referees

Tony Brothers 11th
James Capers 11th
Marc Davis 11th
Kane Fitzgerald 4th
Scott Foster 15th
John Goble 6th
David Guthrie 5th
Courtney Kirkland 2nd
Eric Lewis 4th
Josh Tiven 3rd
James Williams 2nd
Zach Zarba 9th

“If someone is .0008 separated in our matrix, we talk it out as a group. That means the analytical team and my team — obviously the [NBA] teams aren’t involved in that. But [president of league operations] Byron Spruell, Joe Dumars in his role [as executive vice president, head of basketball operations], which used to be Kiki VanDeWeghe, when [referees] are minutely close together via the matrix, we hash out what intangibles each person brings.

“You can’t just be out there missing a ton of calls and expect your strength or courage as an intangible to override that. Then we as experts know where people should be standing, know whether they show up in the fourth quarter or overtime, which is an important factor in the playoffs because the decisions are so difficult to make and the pressure is so high. Some people handle pressure a little better than others, and we have to recognize that. We have to grow those that don’t handle it, and they don’t get the best opportunities until they do handle it.

“It’s very analogous to what coaches do with their younger players, developing them until they can become part of a rotation.”

The last-two-minute (L2M) reports become huge news the mornings after NBA Finals games. Has there been discussion to expand that time frame, and what has the overall assessment been of the success of those reports?

“We’ve been very successful being transparent. We’re very honest about those. We hash those out every single day. Every day, we go in and minutely look at very slow replays and everything else. We take it very seriously.

“Right now, it takes 15 reviewers eight hours to nine hours to do one full game that we give to the teams. There’s no way we can get that out the next morning by 9 a.m. if we expand that on a 13-game night and 12 of them go to a L2M report that would turn into a whole-game report or a fourth-quarter report. It’s truly a logistical issue against training proper people to give out meaningful reports.

“We think the two minutes is the one that signifies. It mirrors our rulebook well with all the rule changes that take place within two minutes. We had to choose a line, and that was the line. Expanding the reports is discussed, but right now, it’s not feasible to go longer and get it out in a timely manner.”