Things departed from normal even before the Celtics and Rockets tipped off their game Thursday night in Boston, as referee Mark Lindsay was forced to sit things out with a back injury suffered during pregame warmups. That left Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis as the game’s two officials, which is hardly ideal for any NBA game, let alone a nationally televised contest between two of the league’s best teams.
Neither was the fact that the Celtics were playing their third game in four days, and it showed immediately as Houston jumped out to a 12-0 lead that grew to 41-15 midway through the second quarter. James Harden was making shots like these (okay, this one didn’t count):
But Boston righted itself after halftime, forcing seven turnovers and holding the Rockets to four field goals in the third quarter, and eventually shaved Houston’s lead down to one point with 7.3 seconds left. On an inbounds play after the Celtics field goal that cut it to one, Marcus Smart drew an offensive foul on Harden:
Al Horford’s hook shot on the resulting possession gave Boston its first and only lead of the game, but the Rockets still had one more chance, at least until Smart drew another offensive foul on Harden.
Harden didn’t hide his feelings after the Rockets’ bizarre 99-98 loss, especially about the fact that there were only two officials on the court all night.
“Well, first of all, I’m wondering how do you only have two officials on a national TV game? That’s the first question,” Harden told reporters afterward, per ESPN. “A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. I mean, how else am I supposed to get open? Gotta ask, with two arms wrapped around my whole body.
“But like I said, it’s just tough. You can’t have two officials in a professional game. There’s a lot of no-calls that need to be called, because that changes the dynamic of the game.”
It’s not like the refs were one-sided, as they called a technical foul on mild-mannered Celtics Coach Brad Stevens at one point. Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said both teams had to deal with it.
“We’re 10 athletes on the floor at one time. A lot of space. [Two referees is] going to make a difference,” he said. “That’s why we have three refs. Both teams had to play within that realm, and at times it went in their favor. At times it went in our favor. Best way to combat that is just to adjust, and I thought both teams did a great job of that.”
Brothers and Petraitis were left to work the game on their own because the NBA typically does not assign backup or alternate officials to regular season games, saving that practice for the playoffs.
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