LOS ANGELES — After Fred VanVleet finished criticizing an official publicly, for which he had willingly accepted the inevitability of a fine, he said that he had made a decent attempt to avoid the spiel.
“It’s your fault (for asking about the officiating),” VanVleet told me jokingly in the hallways of Crypto.com Arena after a 108-100 loss to the Clippers. “I took deep breaths and everything.”
VanVleet was clear to say the referees were not the reason the Raptors lost — that would be their 37.5 percent accuracy from inside the arc and the Clippers’ superior defence. He does not want people to think he is abdicating the Raptors for their performance in losing to the Clippers, or even Monday night, when they lost in more controversial fashion in Denver.
Still, he feels like a line has to be drawn.
“Most of the refs are trying hard. I like a lot of the refs,” VanVleet said in the middle of his rant. “They’re trying hard. They’re pretty fair and communicate well. And then you got the other ones who just want to be d—- and just kind of f— up the game.”
The Raptors shot 14 free throws, while the Clippers shot 31. The Raptors have to own some of that: Both Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes had multiple instances in which they did not go up with a shot strongly and on balance, and you’re less likely to earn a whistle in that case. Siakam’s free throws are down notably: In his 32 games in 2023, Siakam has shot eight free throws or more just eight times. He did that six times in a row to end 2022 and 16 times in his first 26 games. He took two free throws to go along with his 21 field-goal attempts against the Clippers.
For VanVleet, it goes beyond that. Between the technical foul he received in the third quarter from a referee who he said he has had ongoing issues with this year and the one-technical-foul ejection Scott Foster handed Barnes late in Denver, VanVleet believes some officials are stepping beyond their job descriptions.
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“There’s a fine line, obviously, I understand that,” VanVleet said. “But I think the jurisdiction and the power trip that we’ve been on this year with some of our officials in this league is getting out of hand. And I’ll take my fine for speaking on it, but … this is f—— ridiculous.”
The Raptors, of course, play an aggressive style that will put them on the wrong side of the whistle on some nights. The Raptors picked up their fourth team foul — thus putting the Clippers on the line for every successive foul — with 1 minute, 25 seconds remaining in the first quarter, 6:52 remaining in the second quarter, 7:02 remaining in the third quarter and 6:19 remaining in the fourth. In total, it should be noted, the officiating crew assessed the Raptors only five more fouls than the Clippers.
Again, that isn’t necessarily wrong, and both VanVleet and Nick Nurse said the Raptors have a responsibility to adjust to that. VanVleet picked up his technical after that fourth foul in the third quarter, when Barnes, who was flummoxed at being ejected Monday, was called for fouling Clippers centre Ivica Zubac. Barnes stretched his arms out, wondering what he had done.
“There’s been certain times this year where I feel our team is getting consumed with the way the whistle is going, especially after the night we just had in Denver, the way that finished,” VanVleet said. “So there was a couple calls earlier that we all disagreed with. And if I say to my team, ‘Come on, guys, let’s keep playing through the bulls—,’ and that warrants a tech? I think that’s a little bit crazy.”
VanVleet saved his harshest criticism for referee Ben Taylor, whose night he called “terrible” with a curse word thrown in front of that assessment.
“I think that most nights, out of the three (referees), there’s one or two that just f— the game up. It’s been like that a couple of games in a row,” VanVleet said. “Denver was tough, obviously. You come out tonight, competing pretty hard and I get a bulls— tech that changes the whole dynamic of the game, changed the whole flow of the game.”
Similarly, Nurse was frustrated, two days later, about Barnes’ ejection in Denver. Citing Barnes questioning the integrity of the officiating crew, Foster tossed the second-year player on his first technical foul, giving the Nuggets an extra free throw in a one-possession game.
“Obviously, somewhere within a minute to go of that game, one of the officials got very upset with (Barnes),” Nurse said before the Clippers game. “From my personal standpoint, there wasn’t much angst in that game at all — from either coach, from any players, from whatever. There were a couple tough plays there at the end. Scottie was involved in a couple of them. He obviously talked on the first one, which I challenged. He had a lot of time to talk on that one. But again, Scottie is not a real rough talker. Even if he’s talking, it’s probably not that hard to take it.”
To the extent that the Raptors are getting treated differently, a lot of it can be understood. First and foremost, there is their defensive style. As well, they don’t hesitate to let the officials know their displeasure. Nurse rides the referees as hard as any coach in the league, while Siakam, VanVleet and Barnes are in frequent dialogue with the officials, to be sure. That doesn’t make them unique across the league, but they also aren’t helping themselves.
The Raptors can get better in defending without fouling, and they can get better in rolling with the punches — VanVleet, remember, picked up the technical for telling his teammates to ignore the calls, if a bit colourfully. They have a bunch of areas to clean up, and they’re nearly at the end of the regular season’s runway to fix them.
To VanVleet, though, this is about more than just his team’s wins and losses. It’s about the league’s product.
“No one’s coming to see (officials overshadow the game). They come to see the players,” VanVleet said. “And I think we’re losing a little bit of the fabric of what the NBA is and was, and it’s been disappointing this season. You can look it up: Most of my techs this year have been with Ben Taylor officiating. So at a certain point as a player, you feel it’s personal and it’s never a good place to be. That’s not why we lost tonight — we got outplayed. But it definitely makes it tougher to overcome.”
(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)