Thursday night’s Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets game was one of the better games of the NBA regular season. It featured a crazy comeback by the Celtics, controversial calls, an angry James Harden, and maybe most importantly ended with just two referees instead of three.

During pregame warm-ups, referee Mark Lindsay reportedly hurt his back, resulting in Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis serving as the only referees for a game involving two of the three best records in the league.

After the loss, Harden had one important question he felt he needed to ask:

“First of all, I want to know, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game? That’s the first question,” Harden asked reporters.

After the win, Kyrie Irving also commented on how hard of a job Brothers and Petraitis had serving as a two-man crew for such a big game.

“We’re 10 athletes on the floor at one time. A lot of space. [Two referees is] going to make a difference,” said Irving, who couldn’t remember playing with just two refs before in his career. “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.

“Obviously, both teams wished some calls could have gone either way. But it didn’t make a difference having just two refs. When I saw both of them out there at the half court [before the game], and I was like, ‘There’s just two of y’all tonight?’ They were like, ‘Somebody’s hurt.’ I was like, ‘Where’s the backup?’ I asked a legit question. I was like, ‘Where’s the backup?’ Because I thought usually they have four refs, so there’s one for backup or someone is watching in the back or something. I don’t know the dynamic.”

Irving was right to ask where the backup ref was and I’m sure he wasn’t alone in that. The NBA apparently doesn’t send an extra referee to every single regular season game as that would require 1. more refs and 2. more money to pay those extra refs (which the NBA can probably afford).

An extra ref for every playoff game makes sense as those games are extremely important and will have available referees in their pool, but an extra ref physically at every regular season game is tough. As Irving points out, it’s not common that two refs end up working a game without a third member on their crew. If Irving is right and he’s never played in a game with a two-man crew, this was his first experience in his 418th NBA game.

But injuries and unforeseen circumstances do happen and the NBA should have a plan in place to provide some sort of extra ref to the crew.

In Major League Baseball, if one of the umpires has to leave a game, the four-man crew turns into three. Baseball has an easier time making up for the loss of an umpire as the two remaining base umpires can position themselves to have good angles on the only bases that matter for the upcoming pitch.

If there is a questionable call in Major League Baseball, umpires have the comfort of knowing that at the MLB replay center in Chelsea, New York there is an official umpire there to help them out.

The NBA has a replay review center in Secaucus, New Jersey that functions as MLB’s equivalent. According to the league’s official website, there are 15 NBA referees who consult with the replay center. If this is really the case, why can’t one of those 15 help with big foul calls like we saw on Thursday? Or rather, why can’t one of those 15 help as an unofficial but official third referee on a two-man crew?

Having an extra ref physically at every regular season game is hard and maybe even unnecessary since a referee having to leave mid-game isn’t common. But the NBA does need to have one standing by at least in Secaucus to answer any questions refs may have or at least help with questionable calls. This way, situations can be avoided and fouls like the ones called in the Celtics-Rockets game can be corrected if need be.

“Then you got fast-break points, no-calls, turnovers, whatever the case may be. But it’s a professional game, national TV. Can’t happen,” Harden said

If this game was instead between two cellar-dwelling teams, the scrutiny and uproar may not have emerged, but as Harden mentioned, this game was on national TV and it involved two of the best teams in the league. The NBA is such a fast paced sport that it needs to have an extra set of eyes ready to help out either physically or technically if one ref needs to leave. Baseball is much slower, giving the umpires the ability to work a game with just a three-man crew if need be. But basketball doesn’t have that same luxury.

The NBA needs to either come out and make clear what its rules are or institute a system where an extra referee is ready to help out should in those rare instances a ref has to leave a game early


About David Lauterbach

David is a writer for The Comeback. He enjoyed two Men's Basketball Final Four trips for Syracuse before graduating in 2016. If The Office or Game of Thrones is on TV, David will be watching.