- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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BOSTON -- They came out of Room 7 in TD Garden 17 minutes and 7 seconds before the game began. Scott Foster, Greg Willard and James Capers (the alternate) first.
Then the lead official, Eddie F. Rush.
They followed the Celtics onto the court and into the cheers for the home team. Maybe by design, to avoid the hate they'd likely hear if they came out at any other time.
All eyes were on them. The refs, about to call Game 4. They knew what everyone inside the arena (and watching on TV and listening on the radio and streaming the game online) knew: This was their do-or-die moment.
Or something very close to that.
The most important people on the court this deep into an NBA Finals should never be them. It's unfortunate that in the middle of a series that is supposed to be epic, the referees have been a major part of the storyline. Fair or unfair, the role the refs have played in the first three games of the Finals has been pivotal. And that's being nice. In a league haunted over the years by conspiracy theories involving the officiating -- haunted the way "Basketball Wives" has to be haunting Shaq -- this is the last thing the NBA needs.
But Thursday night, they finally became invisible. The Celtics' 96-89 series-tying win was not supported by calls that could be construed -- accurately or inaccurately -- as playing a role in the outcome of the game.
"Both teams were allowed to play," Boston coach Doc Rivers said afterward. "And it was terrific. It was good basketball."
Almost from the beginning, from the time Ron Artest and Paul Pierce got that double-foul called on them 37 seconds into Game 1, the officiating has defined the rhythm -- or lack thereof -- of each game the Lakers and Celtics have played in these Finals. Fifty-four fouls called in Game 1. Fifty-eight in Game 2. Eleven fewer in Game 3, but three calls down the stretch, deep into the fourth quarter, that were so scrutinized and under review that you began to think God was exercising his sense of humor at the refs' expense.
It was so bad at the end of Game 3 on Tuesday night that you almost -- almost -- felt sorry for the refs. It bordered on cruelty.
The superstars-don't-get-calls-against-them theory, the time-honored premise which seems to have been established as far back as when Russell was battling Wilt, had not been in effect at all. Ray Allen's five fouls affected Game 1. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett each had five in Game 2. Pierce's five affected Game 3 (especially when you ask Boston fans).
In Game 4, they had to get it right. In Game 4, the refs had to get out of the way of the series.
In Game 4, they finally did.
They allowed Kendrick Perkins to push Pau Gasol out of the blocks (although they didn't allow Derek Fisher to fight through picks). They allowed Kobe to create space (although they didn't allow Rasheed Wallace to fight for position). They allowed Gasol to flop, Sheed to complain, Nate Robinson to scream, Perkins to put his hands up, Andrew Bynum to rotate with elbows high and Bryant to talk to them.
With 5:30 left in the first quarter, a three-second call was made. Before that, only two fouls (both obvious) had been called. A rhythm nation. That was the longest stretch of the series so far without the referees being overtly involved. On Thursday, Rush, Willard and Foster let the players play.
The game was low-scoring, but it wasn't because of the refs. Both teams shot below 50 percent (45.1 percent by the Lakers, 44.6 percent by the Celtics), but it wasn't because of the refs. They didn't blow a call that determined or shifted the direction of the game. Despite a bad blocking call on Kobe in the fourth (which they made up for with a bad blocked shot foul call on Ray Allen on the very next play), the refs finally found the right line between missing calls and letting calls go. The line between being a part of the game and being inconspicuous.
Charles Barkley even had to admit it.
"They finally called a good game," he said. "Finally."
Ice Cube made a comment a few days prior to Game 4 that seems to sum up the feeling many were having about the role the officials were playing in the series. He said, "They calling these games like someone paid to come see them instead of the players."
True that. But going forward, after Game 4, it seems as if the NBA can -- for at least the end of this season -- put the officiating issues behind it.
As he walked out of Room 7 again, late in the evening this time when it was all over, pulling his roller bag behind him, I stopped Mr. Rush, who had taken an accidental punch to the left jaw from Pierce early in the game. I stuck out my hand and congratulated him on calling a good game. Under the circumstances, I know he and the rest of his crew had to be feeling the pressure, but of course they never showed any signs of it before, during or after.
The look he gave me was one of thanks, colored also with a quizzical, Why are you congratulating me for doing my job?
Here's why: Because until now, everyone seemed to be questioning the capability of all the other refs to do theirs.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
For the first time in the Finals, the refs were invisible during Game 4. But what took them so long to disappear? And can they stay out of sight in Game 5?