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Officiating becomes major discussion as Hawks suffer defeat in Phoenix

This game will be remembered for one reason and one reason only...

Atlanta Hawks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks continued their Western Conference bout with the hump of the trip taking place in Phoenix on Thursday night as the Hawks squared up against the, arguably, the surprise of the young season in the form of the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, they were unable to add a second win on the trip on Thursday night, falling 128-112 to the Suns in a controversial contest.

The game itself was not the most interesting one, if you want to get yourself up to speed on how the game unfolded as it happened, you can do so here. Always recommended.

If you watched this game, then you know what’s about to happen...

This game is going to be remembered for one reason and that’s the officiating, which completely overshadowed anything that happened on the court between the players.

Look, it’s a difficult line to thread.

Officiating is a thankless job and it’s not one I would envy. Some bad calls are made, some obvious calls are missed. It happens in every single NBA game and everyone accepts that — with varying degrees, of course.

That being said, it would be remiss not to talk about some of what happened in Phoenix last night with regard the officiating (and I’m going to try bring this across as best as I can, because it’s a tough one).

To say the whistle got good use last night would be an understatement and it seemed as though the Hawks got the short-end of the straw, at least to some degree.

In total, 55 personal fouls were called (31 for the Hawks, 24 for the Suns) and 68 free throws were shot, nudging this game nicely toward the two hours and thirty minutes mark. Those are some large numbers.

One of the larger talking points of this game nestled in this was Atlanta’s 10 offensive fouls on the game. Now, some of these calls were fine — there’s nothing to really say about some of these, such as this offensive foul from Bruno Fernando:

Nothing wild here, Tyler Johnson slides over — out of the restricted zone — and draws the charge on Fernando. Grand, that’s all good, and you move on with the next possession. And there was some good calls made in this game. There was one in particular where a push in the back was called by one official and, I believe, an offensive foul by another official, the foul on the push was the one that stuck. An appropriate call.

The main ire toward a lot of these offensive fouls came on the fouls that the Suns drew for charges on the rollers out of the pick-and-roll — there were a number of these throughout the game.

Damian Jones comes out top as the big in the pick-and-roll for the ball-handler, he slips the screen and rolls inside — you know, the action you see a thousand times, especially from the Hawks who love to slip screens (which is frustrating at times because they don’t make contact with screens/create separation, but that’s a conversation for another day) — Ricky Rubio (who isn’t even the on-ball/pick-and-roll defender) slides over, sets himself, Jones rolls, crashes into Rubio and the offensive foul is called:

You look at that and, fair enough, you could say ‘Well, he’s clearly barreled into him’ and you may have a point.

However, this quickly became a theme in game.

Jones was called for another offensive foul for something similar later in the same quarter. He receives the ball from DeAndre’ Bembry, hands it off to Trae Young, creates some separation for Young and as Jones...I wouldn’t even call it a roll. As Jones moseys inside, he makes minimal contact with Rubio, who embellishes the contact, falls to the floor and the offensive foul is called:

That’s a brutal way to receive your third foul of the half (and quarter for that matter, since all three of Jones’ first half fouls came in the second period) and that was a blow for the Hawks because Jones was rolling (pun half-intended), scoring 12 points in the first half.

Jones started the second half with his three fouls but lasted less than a minute in the third quarter as he was called for another offensive foul, as it’s Kelly Oubre — who, again, is not involved in the pick-and-roll action — this time who steps over to draw the charge on the roll:

Again, not a ton of contact but enough for the officials to call Jones for the offensive foul and his fourth — he would not reappear for the remainder of the third quarter, and by the time he did reappear, the game was basically over for the Hawks.

And it wasn’t just Damian Jones. Alex Len was called for it too, as Tyler Johnson sets himself on this play and is bundled over by Len:

“We got going, getting behind the defense with our rollers, Damian Jones was great. They came in and started stepping in front of our rollers and apparently that’s an offensive foul,” said Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce postgame via Fox Sports Southeast. “But that changed the complexity of the game in our pick and rolls...”

‘Freedom of movement’ is obviously something that’s been discussed often over the last season, and I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do when your bigs can’t even wander to the paint, so much as breathing on another player, without being called for an offensive foul on a player not even involved in the pick-and-roll action.

Lloyd Pierce wasn’t sure either.

“10 of the same offensive fouls,” Pierce went on to say. “At some point you’ve got to say... Because we talk about ‘freedom of movement’ and when our bigs are rolling and you step underneath our bigs, it’s tough. Freedom of movement, he has the right to run, you step underneath them. I didn’t think our guys were running over them, maybe they were, I need to watch the film. But I think it’s tough for our guys to try and go anywhere and a guy steps in front of him but it’s just how it goes.”

I can’t decide between what the Suns did was brilliantly clever from a coaching point of view or just cheap and lazy (in that they don’t have to really guard or bust over screens etc. if they step in and take the charge) — to just plant themselves and take charges on the pick-and-roll big rolling/meandering to the paint.

I lean toward the latter but it was obviously a point of emphasis, whether that was the case beforehand or an in-game adjustment from Suns head coach Monty Williams.

I have no idea if the Suns, if they do this on the road, if they have the same joy successfully drawing those offensive fouls, but those calls were there last night (and not all of them to be fair, there were a few they tried that weren’t successful, not a lot but there were one or two).

And, look, it’s a tough one. You have to straddle that line like Pierce did between saying what you want to say and getting some of your feelings out there but not saying too much and getting fined (which Pierce said wasn’t worth it and that “it’s not going to change anything”).

Someone covering the Suns or a fan of the Suns (etc.) could read this and, to them, I sound objectively biased and complaining about the calls. ‘The Hawks didn’t get this call, or that call’ etc. etc.

That’s not it, and if you read anything I write, you know that’s not me.

It’s to highlight the weirdness of this game. I can’t remember seeing players step in like that and actively look for charges on the rollers, especially players who aren’t involved in the pick-and-roll action, which illustrates the intention from the Suns to do this.

Not to slander the officials, but they — like the players on some nights — had a tough night, and that went both ways. The Hawks shot 30 free throws themselves, it’s not like they also didn’t get something from the whistle. Were they as blatant as what the Suns got, more specifically, those offensive fouls? You can debate that if you want but the reality it goes both ways.

In reality, you don’t lose an NBA game solely on calls you get/don’t get — there are always other factors. For example, if the Hawks had done a better job guarding the three-pointer (the Suns shot 15-of-39 from three) or had shot better from three themselves (8-of-31) then maybe they would’ve had a better chance in this game...

“(We) just didn’t have a great night defensively,” said Pierce postgame.

Either way, the turnovers obviously racked up with the offensive fouls — 22 on the night for the Hawks leading to 24 points for the Suns. That matters, that’s a big swing in Phoenix’s favor.

And then came the ejections, yes, plural.

DeAndre’ Bembry was ejected in the third quarter after he received back-to-back technicals after he, first, taunted Ricky Rubio after this block:

Bembry then got a little close to Kane Fitzgerald and said whatever he needed to say (whether it was for a previous play, I’m unsure) for Fitzgerald to assess a second technical:

I don’t think there can be any objections here on this one — Bembry probably earned this one, though, he wasn’t too impressed afterwards.

It’s the other ejection for Cam Reddish where things get a little murkier.

Reddish was assessed two flagrant-1 fouls en-route to his ejection in the fourth quarter, both (and try not to fall off of your seat when I say this) were assessed on offensive fouls.

The first one came in the second quarter, where Reddish makes contact with Frank Kaminsky on an attempt at the rim, here’s the money view:

The ‘NBA Official’ account tweeted out the flagrant criteria, which is always a good reminder of what is/isn’t a flagrant foul:

So, you go through the criteria... Was it severe? No. Was it a legitimate basketball play? Yes, Reddish was trying to score at the rim. However, the contact was deemed as ‘unnecessary’ and I just cannot see how that’s a flagrant foul — it’s a basketball play. Again, the Suns I think embellished the contact, Kaminsky was (just about) hit, sure, but it was not as bad as it was made out to be and it’s certainly not a flagrant foul, in my opinion.

Not only was that a tough call on its own but it was also Reddish’s third foul of the first half.

Moving on to the fourth quarter, Reddish picked up his second flagrant-1 foul on a drive on Aron Baynes:

This one, I understand a little more why a flagrant was assessed — contact is much more substantial on this one (as much as Baynes likes to embellish contact) and Reddish leads with the elbow more so on this play.

And it didn’t really matter in the sense that it was a flagrant because it was Reddish’s sixth foul anyways but just added insult to injury. It’s that first flagrant, that’s the tough one for the Hawks to swallow, especially on a night where they need all the bodies they can get without Huerter, Turner, Carter, Collins etc.

Postgame, Pierce did well to straddle the line when asked about the officiating but you could sense he wasn’t best pleased.

“Not a fun game, that’s all I got,” opened Lloyd Pierce.

“Nothing we can do about it,” Pierce repeated when asked by Fox Sports Southeast’s Andre Aldridge about the foul calls.

Pierce opened up a little more when asked about the value of minutes for De’Andre Hunter (and others, Charlie Brown featured in this game too) late on in the game despite the impending loss.

“That’s all we got, we have no bodies,” smiled Pierce. “It’s unfortunate. We lose DeAndre’ Bembry to techs and Cam (Reddish) to, he’s just trying to be aggressive and they’re calling flagrants. It’s just one of those nights. The whistle didn’t go our way, I didn’t agree with any of them. We’re short handed already but we’re shot-handed two guys and so, even in a loss, you want to protect players and try to protect bodies and guys just had to play. Luckily Allen (Crabbe) was available because we needed all of those 15 minutes. Just an unfortunate situation.”

The players were also a little hesitant to answer too deeply when prompted about the officiating in this game.

“It was a pretty weird game,” said Jabari Parker via AZ Central. “I don’t want to comment too much, but that one kind of goes down in the history books for the experience out there if you know what I mean. It’s just hard when we can’t play our game. I think we gave ourselves a shot, we tried to fight back , but we were trying to play catch up the whole time.”

Similar to Parker, the experience was a new one for Trae Young.

It’s difficult to talk about, and it’s unfortunate that this was the theme postgame and that this was the storyline from this game but that’s how the cookie crumbled last night... The officiating mattered, the calls made mattered. They weren’t the sole reason the Hawks lost but it mattered last night more than it usually does.

Moving away from the fouls, there’s a few things to mention about the game itself (again, in a loss, these were all overshadowed by the officiating).

Damian Jones registered career-highs in both points and rebounds, scoring 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting and grabbing eight rebounds. Most of these came in the first half and a lot of these came off of finds from Trae Young but Jones was also hustling too.

Jones grabbed four offensive rebounds, cleaning up on this play here in the second quarter:

Former Sun Alex Len — booed last night by his former fans — also enjoyed another positive game off of the bench as he poured out a season-high 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field 1-of-3 from three and 6-of-9 from the free throw line to go along with 10 rebounds in just under 26 minutes of action, also a season-high.

Len had some strong plays at the rim, such as this dunk at the rim on Aron Baynes:

From the three-point line, Len fakes the three, drives inside and finishes with authority at the rim:

It was this aggression that was pleasing to Pierce when he was asked about Len, who was one of the few positives from last night.

“I thought he was great,” said Pierce of Len. “I thought he was physical, I thought active around the basket and got to the foul line. I just like his aggression. He’s not settling and sitting on the perimeter, he’s around the basket he’s rolling with force, he’s catching the ball in a crowd and going up on balance and he created a lot of foul opportunities, which is good for him. Anytime you’re trying to get yourself going, the free throw line is always your friend and I thought he we able to do that tonight.”

Obviously the third quarter was the period where Phoenix found some separation, outscoring the Hawks 37-29 as they established a double-digit lead.

Part of that was due to the Suns’ 16 free throw attempts (12 of which were made) but in addition to that, Trae Young only attempted two shots in that third quarter, of which he played 10:52 — basically the entire third quarter.

The Suns came out and trapped Young from minute one and they did this in the third quarter as well but the reason why Young didn’t just launch shots was, well, in part due to the turnovers/offensive fouls but he also just looked for his teammates in the flow of the game, dishing five assists in the third quarter alone. Sure, the Suns did their bit in denying Young at times but Young, as he does, looked for his teammates and didn’t force anything himself.

Young finished with 13 assists on the game to go along with 21 points, and though you’d maybe like to see Young attempt a few more shots in the third quarter (especially as the Suns opened up that lead), I think he was right to play within the flow of the game not force the matter, to force bad shots for the sake of getting a shot up there.

Postgame, Pierce talked about how the Hawks were short-handed coming in... This was the first game in which the Hawks, again, had to progress without Kevin Huerter as the injury report regarding his shoulder was announced before the game, with Huerter set for another spell on the sidelines.

Reddish stepped back into the starting lineup and Allen Crabbe made his debut for the Hawks in the first half. Crabbe was limited to 15 minutes in his return from knee surgery and Pierce referenced postgame how the Hawks needed all 15 of them after the ejections for Bembry and Reddish, with nine of Crabbe’s 15 minutes coming after Bembry was ejected. Crabbe hit his first shot but faded from the game thereafter, which is probably to be expected as he works his way back.

Chandler Parsons was technically available to play after going through a status rollercoaster but was upgraded to ‘available’ ahead of tip. Parsons did not play — it would’ve taken an emergency for it to happen last night — but it seems as though Parsons may be in action sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see how Parsons may fit into the rotation, arguably, he may be fortunate in the sense that with Collins suspended, he may sneak into a few minutes.

The jury is very much still out on that though — would have to be a case of ‘Believe it when you see it.’

Overall, the Hawks didn’t play poorly — they’re just short-handed. Good contributions from Trae Young, obviously, while Jabari Parker enjoyed another good game (24 points, seven rebounds). De’Andre Hunter added 14 points, shot just 5-of-15 (which surprised me when I saw that) but had six steals on the game, a big positive.

The Suns, calls aside, did not luck into this victory (which was convincing in the end). Kelly Oubre was great as he scored a season-high 30 points and came up with a number of energy plays, Dario Saric scored a season-high 23 points, Devin Booker was strong (as you would expect) with 27 points and Frank Kaminsky added 19 points — solid contributions for the Suns last night.

The Hawks (4-7) now head into what is arguably their most difficult back-to-back of the season — the Staples Center back-to-back, beginning on Saturday with the Los Angeles Clippers where the Hawks will take one of the best in the league, and the Hawks may be the first team where both Leonard and George are unleashed in the same game.

Should be good fun.

Until next time...