Staples Center buzzed on Thursday night, as LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers and James Harden’s Houston Rockets squared off for their first games back post-All-Star break. The main storyline heading into the Western Conference matchup revolved around the last time the two teams played each other in Los Angeles, where a brawl broke out between the Chris Paul of the Rockets and Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram of the Lakers. Following Thursday night’s game, however, the focus shifted from the players to the officials.
The Lebron-led Lakers manufactured a 19-point comeback in the second half that led to Harden fouling out with 1:24 remaining in his team’s 111-106 loss, pushing the melodramatic Lakers’ squad to 2.5 games behind eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in an already-tight Western Conference playoff race.
Following his team’s collapse, Harden sat down in the locker room to discuss all the typical post-game topics. But instead of talking about his play and the team, Harden decided to attack Scott Foster, a veteran official who worked the game. “Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” asserted the smooth lefty who had just collected his 32nd 30-point game of the season. When a reporter asked Harden if he thought Foster’s treatment of the Rockets was personal, Harden replied, “For sure” (ESPN, “Rockets’ James Harden fined $25K for public criticism of ref Scott Foster,” 02.24.2019). But is that really the case? Let’s take a look.
According to numbers aggregated on the r/nba subreddit, from the 2016-2017 season to this current one, the Rockets have played 18 games in which Scott Foster served as the referee. In those 18 games, the Rockets are 9-9. Six of those 18 games were playoff games. In those six games, the Rockets are 0-6, with their smallest loss being only by two against a Thunder team led by thenMVP Russell Westbrook, and their largest loss being against the San Antonio Spurs by a whopping 39 points.
But do these playoff losses point to Scott Foster hating the Rockets, or Harden in particular? No, they do not. In the six playoff games Harden has played with Scott Foster as an official, Harden averaged 28.7 points on 38.1% shooting, 7.8 assists, 4.5 turnovers, 10.2 free throws attempted and 4.3 fouls, according to Basketball Reference. These look like decent numbers, right? Well, I hate to bring up old times, but let’s take a look at two of Harden’s worst playoff games during this stretch. On May 3, 2017, Harden came up against a prolific Spurs team. In this game, Harden only scored 13 points on 17.6% shooting, and the team was outscored by 13 points with him on the floor, resulting in a 16-point loss.
What’s funny is that Harden didn’t even have the worst plus-minus that game; instead it was Ryan Anderson with a disgusting -26. Surely Harden would step it up and play better to close out the series, right? Wrong! In a pivotal Game 6 in Houston, Harden scored only 10 points on 18.2% shooting, fouling out with six turnovers and a plus-minus of -28 in a near 40-point loss to end their season.
Looking back on those Rockets teams, it’s easy to determine why they were losing games: they couldn’t play defense, and their offense remained inconsistent. Take Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals for example, where they played a dejected Golden State Warriors team in Houston. This was supposed to be the game where Harden cemented his legacy and knocked off one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Instead, the Rockets shot 7-44 from beyond the arc, at one point missing TWENTY-SEVEN consecutive three-pointers, breaking an NBA Playoffs record and opening the door for the Warriors to go to their fourth consecutive Finals.
But what’s even more interesting is the almost comical disparity in fouls going Harden’s way. Harden has become one of the league’s premier foul drawers. As of Feb. 23, he’s shot 627 free throws, according to the NBA’s official website. In comparison, the second-leading free throw attempter is Joel Embiid, who’s shot 546 free throws. In 2017, according to fivethirtyeight, Harden was fouled on more threes than any other team in the NBA. This season, he’s had 15 four-point plays, which is nine more than the league’s favorite chucker, Stephen Curry. So why is Scott Foster being put to blame? Well, if you want the easy answer, it’s because Foster is a no-nonsense referee. He isn’t chummy with star players, and he is part of an older generation of referees brought up under Joey Crawford, a referee notorious for being a bitter old official who hated everyone and everything (like that one relative we all have).
More noteworthy, however, is Foster’s ties to Tim Donaghy. For those who aren’t aware, Donaghy was an NBA referee caught running an illegal gambling ring by the FBI, fixing games to his pockets’ likings. Following an investigation by the FBI into Donaghy’s activities, Fox News revealed that during the 2006-2007 season, Donaghy called Foster 134 times, leading some fans and analysts to believe that Foster was a part of the gambling ring (CBS Boston, “Scott Foster, Recipient Of 134 Tim Donaghy Phone Calls, Refereeing Celtics-Heat Game 3,” 06.01.2012). And with the recent passing of a law that will legalize sports betting, the reputations of referees like Foster have become even more questionable. Neither the league nor the FBI found substantive evidence incriminating Foster, however, and he’s earned respect from numerous players and NBA officials as one of the best in the game.
So, James, instead of whining because the referees didn’t baby you and give you every call, focus on trying to get your team together and making a run as you approach the playoffs.