The Philadelphia 76ers took care of business at home in Game one of the 2022 NBA playoffs. They defeated a scary Toronto Raptors group in exhilarating fashion, winning 131-111 to take a 1-0 series lead. Tyrese Maxey went nuclear in the third quarter. As our Paul Hudrick wrote “the 21-year-old’s 21-point third quarter thwarted any thought of a Toronto comeback and was a nice coming out party to those unfamiliar with the Kentucky product.”
But after the game, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was focused on the way the game was officiated.
Toronto’s first time All-Star Fred VanVleet picked up two personal fouls in the first minute of action. That limited FVV and appeared to set a tone that officials were calling the game relatively tight, at least out on the perimeter.
Last season, the NBA called games so even a Lance Stephenson style ear-blow was basically a flagrant foul if you did it to a player like Trae Young 25’ away from the cup. A defensive specialist like Matisse Thybulle was really neutralized in the 2021 playoffs because of how quick the league was to whistle contact outside the paint on star ball handlers. Then down in the trenches, it was more like a 4th-and-one on the goal line. It was all part of the league’s design to enhance perimeter scoring and steer teams even further away from post offense.
This year, thankfully, they reversed course and evened out a bit. They even cracked down on non-basketball moves that mostly take place out on the wing. And it hasn’t hurt elite big men. The top three MVP candidates this year were all bigs in Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo (although Giannis is often officiated as if he were a guard).
But it sounds like Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wants more offensive fouls called against the should-be-2022 MVP in Joel Embiid. He felt his smaller (no players over 6-9) front court got bullied, but not in legal fashion.
“We gotta believe that if we’re legal defensively, that they’re gonna call those,” Nurse told reporters after the game. “We had a couple times where we beat [Embiid] to the spot and he bowled us right over and they just let them lay it in. I don’t care if you’re 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, if you beat him to the spot and he runs you over, it’s a foul,” Nurse lobbied. “I thought he threw three or four elbows to the face. He got called for one. We’re going to stand in there.”
Here was the one the Raptors did get. It was called a flagrant one on Embiid, after hitting Scottie Barnes in the face.
Joel Embiid receives a flagrant 1 foul after this play on Barnes.— Deep Hoops (@deep_hoops) April 16, 2022
via @TSN_Sports pic.twitter.com/LchXtuzX23
Now Barnes is doubtful to play in Game 2, not because of that play, but because of the sprained ankle he suffered after diving into the lane to double Embiid, who accidentally stepped on Barnes’ foot.
New ESPN story: An already difficult challenge of getting back into this series was made more difficult for Toronto Sunday when Nick Nurse said Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes and Thaddeus Young were all doubtful to play in Game 2 Monday night. https://t.co/cFkzN9Qt0W— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 17, 2022
If the Raptors are without Gary Trent Jr. and the electric rookie in Barnes for any amount of time, it will be a seismic boost for a Philadelphia team, who didn’t even need one in the first meeting.
“If we’re legal defensively, then we gotta have them call it or we don’t have a chance,” Nurse added. “Period. Nobody can guard that guy if they’re just gonna let him run you over time and time again. We’re gonna stand in there and we’ll see if we don’t get a few more elbow to the face calls and a few more beating him to the spot calls.”
ESPN and ABC color commentator Jeff Van Gundy has long argued, even going back to his days coaching Patrick Ewing on the New York Knicks and later Yao Ming on the Houston Rockets, that big men are officiated unfairly in the NBA. He’s long defended Shaquille O’Neal on the air suggesting that bigs are hacked all the time without call. And the main reason for the no-calls is how little the contact affects the league’s largest players. For example, if you hack Trae Young he’d go flying, whereas a player like Embiid may not even budge at the same level of physicality. And that’s worked against the big man historically, Van Gundy argues.
Nurse is hoping perhaps that we’ll go even further, and call more charges on the bigs. Maybe Nurse has a point and there were several missed calls that should have gone against Embiid because the Raptors were in legal guarding position. But as a member of our Liberty Ballers Slack channel pointed out, typically when you lose by 20 points, it’s not because of the referees.
And if Doc Rivers wanted to, he might point out that James Harden has been on some “you’re never getting the benefit of the doubt” apparent grifter list over the last few weeks. At one point, ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco pointed out that with 13 seconds remaining in the half, when Harden finally went to the free throw line, the three-time scoring champ gestured to the crowd “I finally got one.” Harden is among league leaders in free throws attempted per game this season. But occasionally he gets a crew of officials who appear to have predetermined he’s not shooting a lot of free throws today.
So maybe if they call Joel for a couple more offensive fouls in the next one, they’ll at least keep a closer watch on contact The Beard draws in the lane.
The biggest lesson? When Tyrese Maxey absolutely eviscerates you, hope to lobby for more calls next game. But if Joel Embiid doesn’t get some preferential treatment occasionally, he’d be one of the first MVP candidates in league history to not enjoy a superstar whistle.
Nurse will have to hope the refs treat Embiid more like he’s just another guy and not an All-NBA Unicorn ahead of the next one.