7 Controversial NBA Playoffs of All Time

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They say sports is just reality TV for men, which makes a ton of sense. What does reality TV have that gets people hooked? Controversy. According to many fans and conspiracy theorists, the NBA is a business, and they probably had a say in who will win a playoff series and how said series will get officiated. That’s how businesses work, right?

But whether that’s really the case or not, rational NBA fans may conclude that bad calls are simply a part of the game. Still, it’s always fun to look back and say, how in the world do these refs mess up calls as crucial as these? Prepare to sow the seeds of doubt as this article brings you the most controversial NBA playoffs of all time.

7 Most Controversial NBA Playoffs of All Time7 Most Controversial NBA Playoffs of All Time

Depending on which fanbase you’re asking, it seems like everybody is a victim of a controversial call (or series of calls) that led to a disastrous ending. But there are levels to this. Some calls could go either way, depending on who’s looking, but the ones on this list are so egregious Stevie Wonder can see it from a mile away. 

1. 2002 NBA Conference Finals, Game 6

You know it’s really bad when even some Lakers fans would defend this series by arguing the Kings should have handled Game 7 but couldn’t. Several YouTube videos have been made on this topic, citing how the referees saved the Lakers by calling one favorable whistle after another, especially at crunch time. This game is one of the most controversial NBA games of all time.

2. 1988 NBA Finals, Game 6

What’s up with controversial Game Sixes? Anyway, you also know something was up when they had a name for this: The Phantom Foul. 

As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar positioned himself for his patented skyhook with only 27 seconds left, the refs blew the whistle and called a foul on Bill Laimbeer. No matter how hated he was until eternity, Laimbeer didn’t seem to make much contact. Kareem made both free throws to secure a win, and the Lakers finished it in Game 7.

Some argued Laimbeer got under Abdul-Jabbar, but Kareem also shuffled his feet before he made his move. If anything, this is a no-call. 

If the refs decided it was a no-call and the Pistons held on, it’s probably one of the biggest NBA playoffs upsets ever. This was also the Isiah Thomas sprained ankle game, and the Pistons are up 3-2. Game 6 would have been the clincher, and fans would have seen the legacies of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar much differently.

3. 2006 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade’s 97 Free Throws

Dwyane Wade was a phenomenal player, but how in the world did he get 97 free throws in a six-game series? That’s over 16 free throws a game on average! Only the referees know. 

In comparison, Shaquille O’Neal attempted 17 free throws a game in a sweep against the New Jersey Nets in 2002, but everyone, from Todd McCullough to Aaron Williams and Kenyon Martin, was intentionally trying to foul him. Wade was having a hell of a series, but calls were going his way.

4. 2007 Western Conference Semifinals

What do you expect when a referee who admitted to rigging games is in the midst of it all? Amare Stoudemire played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble, and many questionable calls went San Antonio’s way. For example, Steve Nash got outside the restricted area in time to take a charge against Duncan (the call was a block), and he got kneed in the groin by Bruce Bowen (Bowen was called for an offensive foul, but not the unsportsmanlike variety.)

And then, in Game 4 of said series, the Suns lost Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in an incident started by Robert Horry. Horry hip-checked Nash on a play that led to Big Shot Bob serving a two-game suspension. However, the referees decided to hand one game each for the Suns’ forwards, and it was enough to “give” the Spurs a Game 5 win.

5. 1998 NBA Finals, Game 6

Another Game 6. What’s new, right?

Everybody dubbed it “The Last Shot,” but it might as well be “The Pushoff.” But fans know they won’t call something like that on Michael Jordan. Either they have a Game 7 where MJ had another shot on some other form of heroics, or it ends on that shot. The refs chose to swallow the whistle on that last play, and it became one of the most iconic moments ever.

6. 2008 NBA Finals, Game 2

To be clear, nobody thought this was a turning point in the series or the Lakers had any chance of winning the Finals that year. It was just that the calls were ticky-tack for an NBA Finals game, and mostly against the Lakers. The Celtics were undoubtedly the more physical team, but the game should also be officiated both ways. Leon Power attempted more free throws (13) than the entire Lakers team that evening (10), and nobody remembers who Leon Powe is.

7. 2010 NBA Finals, Game 7

How about a little tit-for-tat? If the Lakers were on the short end of the stick in 2008, the Celtics got the brunt of refs’ calls in 2010, in a Game 7, no less. The Lakers shot 21 free throws in the 4th quarter to erase a double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter. The free throw totals may have something to do with the Celtics intentionally fouling to stop the clock near the finish, but it still raised some eyebrows, especially from Boston fans.

5 of the Most Controversial NBA Players in Playoffs5 of the Most Controversial NBA Players in Playoffs

The counter-argument to the NBA rigging games is that they have much more to lose than TV ratings. The fact of the matter is some players are just too difficult to officiate one way or the other. 

1. Shaquille O’Neal

There is probably not one player as controversial as Shaq in the playoffs. In his prime, the 7-foot-1 center gets beat down every time, but he can also dish out punishment on his own time. In some circumstances, the beating was mutual. Put yourself in the ref’s shoes for awhile and you got yourself quite a predicament.

2. Michael Jordan

Truth be told, everyone is a Michael Jordan fan, and sometimes, that may cloud a referee’s judgement. Jordan could get extra physical defensively and no whistles can be heard.

3. Kobe Bryant

Bryant was one of the league’s most polarizing superstars and up there in the most controversial NBA players ever. He was the originator of the swing-through, foul-baiting move that had everybody up in arms. Kobe fished a foul on Ray Allen using that tactic in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and got rewarded for it.

4. Bill Laimbeer

Like O’Neal, Laimbeer was controversial in the sense that he’s very hard to referee. He was a hard-nosed defender and a tough rebounder, but his reputation often precedes him. Perhaps that’s why the refs gave Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the benefit of the doubt in The Phanton call debacle. Or maybe that’s a class case of the boy who cried wolf.

5. Draymond Green

To suspend or not to suspend. That’s basically what the NBA is thinking every time Draymond Green pulls off his shenanigans on the court. Some fans say he gets away with a lot, but as in the case in 2016, his Game 5 suspension in the NBA Finals cost the Warriors a ring.

Wrapping Things Up: Controversial NBA Playoffs of All Time

It’s normal for the NBA playoffs to be mired with controversy. A bad call here and there could be magnified a thousand times, especially in this day of social media and the Internet. But, to be frank, there are some playoff calls and scenarios that just didn’t make sense. What are a few of the most controversial NBA playoffs of all time?

Ask any NBA fan in the early 2000s and they’ll probably pick Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. From there, you may hear about The Phantom call in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals and Dwyane Wade’s unprecedented 97 free throws attempted in the 2006 NBA Finals. Whether the conspiracy theories are true or not, some fans just love the thought, and for that reason, these stories will never die down.

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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