The NBA playoffs showcase the best players in the world, and the worst referees. The post-season microscope really hammers home how spotty officiating can factor into the outcome of a game more than points and rebounds. Here are the 10 worst referee moments that swayed games, series and, in some cases, legacies.
Game 6, 2002 Western Conference Finals
The Kings had been eliminated from the playoffs each of the previous two years by the Lake Show, but this was their year. Sacramento had a 3-2 series lead and homecourt advantage in the series. Then Game 6 in L.A. happened. The Lakers didn’t make a field goal in the fourth quarter from 6:51 to :52. It didn’t matter because they went to the line 27 times in the fourth quarter alone. At one point, Kobe Bryant nearly broke Mike Bibby’s nose going for a loose ball, and Bibby was called for the foul. This game was dragged through the mud again in 2008 by ex-referee Tim Donaghy, who alleged in court that two of the three refs were acting on behalf of league orders. The Lakers finished the Kings off in seven before completing their threepeat.
The entire 2006 NBA Finals
It’s hard to think of this series without thinking of all the favorable calls Dwyane Wade got en route to Miami’s only NBA championship. Wade shot over 20 free throws—not the team, but Wade alone—in each of the last two games of this series, and set a post-merger record for most free throws ever attempted in the Finals with 97. Wade consistently drove to the basket to draw contact early, but by the final two games of the series, referees were calling touch fouls on screeners 30 feet from the basket. Dallas would get their revenge in 2011, though, when they knocked off the Heat to win the Mavericks’ first ever championship.
Game 6, 1988 NBA Finals
With the Lakers trailing 3-2 in the series and 102-101 with less than 20 seconds left in the game, they went to Kareem Abdul Jabbar for a sky hook. The hook missed, but a light touch foul was called on Bill Laimbeer, sending Kareem to the line. The big man canned both free throws and the Lakers went on to win the game and their second consecutive championship. This is called the Phantom Foul, and we can see why. Still, when you’re Bill Laimbeer and everybody hates you and you’ve made an entire career out of bending the rules to get away with little nudges and elbows, the fact remains that the little bump to Kareem’s shoulder is probably going to get called. Karma was the difference between winning a ring and fouling out.
Game 5, 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The Bulls were looking to knock the Knicks out of the payoffs for the fourth consecutive year, this time without Michael Jordan, who had just retired for the first time. With 2.1 seconds left and the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead, Hubert Davis clanked a go-ahead jumper. After the ball had left Davis’ hand, referee Hue Hollins called a phantom foul on Scottie Pippen. These days you cannot touch a shooter until he has landed back on the ground, but there was no such rule back then, making Hollins’ call highly questionable. Davis sank his two freebies and instead of the Bulls heading home with a 3-2 series lead, Chicago was facing elimination. The Knicks went on to win the series in seven games before eventually losing in the Finals to the Houston Rockets.
Game 3, 2007 Western Conference Semifinals
This game serves as Exhibit A in the case against Tim Donaghy, the referee who admitted to influencing the outcome of NBA games in relation to gambling lines. Donaghy’s worst offense was a call he made in the second quarter that was at least two seconds after a play under the basket. Donaghy was at halfcourt at the time and the ref under the rim didn’t blow the whistle. It went against the Suns. Suns All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire also spent the entire second half in foul trouble after a total Spurs’ flop that resulted in the forward’s fourth foul with only a minute gone by in the third. This entire series was marred by bad decisions, including the one-game suspension of Stoudemire for taking exactly one step off the bench during a Game 4 skirmish between Steve Nash and Robert Horry. The Spurs went on to win the series and the championship that season.
Game 6, 1991 Eastern Conference Semifinals
With the Pistons leading three games to two, the Celtics were on the ropes. Things only got worse by the third quarter, with Boston down 17. But they rallied. With the score tied at 103 and less than a minute left in the game, Kevin McHale tipped in a Reggie Lewis miss for a two-point lead. Then the whistle blew. Referee Jack Madden ruled that it was offensive goal-tending. Regulation ended in a 105-105 tie and the Pistons went on to win in overtime. Replays would later show conclusive evidence that it was a completely legal tip-in, but it was too late, Boston’s season was over. Detroit went on to be swept by the Bulls in the next round.
Game 6, 1998 NBA Finals
The last defining moment for His Airness was also an offensive foul. Everyone remembers Jordan standing alone with his hand extended to finish off his second threepeat, but they forget why he was alone. With the Bulls down 86-85, Jordan drove right, stopped on a dime and promptly pushed his defender, Bryon Russell, to the ground before draining the game winner with five seconds left. Neither the Bulls nor the Jazz have made it back to the Finals since.
Game 5, 2009 Eastern Conference First Round
In Game 5 of one of the greatest first round series ever (there were seven overtime periods played during the first six games), Rondo made the game-saving play. And it was completely illegal. With two seconds left in OT and the Bulls trailing 106-104, Brad Miller had a clear path to the basket until Rondo clubbed him in the side of the face. Not making a play on the ball should have resulted in a flagrant foul, which would mean the Bulls could select the player to shoot the two free throws. Instead, it was called a shooting foul. The dazed and bloodied Miller had to shoot the free throws or else the Celtics could pick the shooter. Miller missed both and the Celtics went on to win the game and the series before bowing out to Orlando in the next round.
Game 4, 2008 Western Conference Finals
Oh, look, the Lakers again. The Spurs were down 2 with the ball when Brent Barry pump-faked Derek Fisher into the air. Fisher came down on top of Barry, forcing an errant miss at the buzzer and a Lakers win. No call. A day later, the league office issued a statement saying that the play was indeed a foul. Instead of heading back to Los Angeles knotted up at 2-2, L.A. wound up with a commanding 3-1 series lead after this dubious no-call. The Lakers went on to win the series before losing in the finals to Boston.
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Game 7, 1993 Western Conference Finals
How could a 13-point win be swung by the refs? When one team shoots 64 free throws. The Heat and the Knicks couldn’t even score that many points in a full game back then. Sir Charles led the parade to the free-throw line with 22 attempts as the Suns shot 28 more freebies than the Sonics. Phoenix went on to the Finals, where they were dismissed by M.J. and the Bulls in six games.