The Houston Rockets blew a 26-point lead to the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, but that wasn’t the reason James Harden was upset. 

Did you watch the game on Thursday? Did it look like it was officiated differently? In all likelihood, it was. You may or may not have noticed, but only two referees were present for the Rockets game against the Celtics in Boston. Because of that, James Harden was more upset than usual about how the game was called.

Every NBA game is supposed to have three officials rotating around the court to catch all the action. Without one, a team could get away with more depending on where they’re positioned. Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis were the only ones calling the game because a bad back had Mark Lindsey on the sideline. Boston was much more physical than Houston and appeared to have a healthy amount of no-calls go in their favor. Harden was rightfully upset about it.

“You can’t have two officials in a professional game,” said Harden to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “There were a lot of no-calls that needed to be called because that changes the dynamic of the game. It’s a professional game, national TV. It can’t happen.”

The Celtics crawled back from 26 points down because they executed better than the Rockets did. In the second half, Boston outscored Houston 61-36. With 7.3 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Marcus Smart found Jayson Tatum for a wide-open dunk which cut the lead to 98-97. On the ensuing possession, Smart — a notorious flopper — drew an offensive foul on Harden.

Al Horford then got the ball and put the Celtics up one, which was succeeded by Smart drawing another offensive foul on — you guessed it! — Harden. By that point, the game was over.

Now, let’s keep it a buck: the Rockets lost because of how they played. The officiating didn’t decide the outcome. On those two offensive fouls, Brothers watched the plays unfold right in front of him. And Smart did a great job selling it.

Houston was up 26 and failed to put the game away, and nobody’s going to care about your gripe because of the position you were in. However, it’s important to note that a third official would’ve played a significant role.

In high school, there are only two referees because the court is smaller. An NBA-sized court is significantly bigger, and it’s difficult for two officials to keep eyes on everything throughout the course of the game. A third official is a safety net that catches any calls the others miss. If Tony Brothers is on the baseline and some jersey-pulling is happening on the far corner, he’s not going to notice it because the action isn’t over there. That’s not his fault.

Typically, the league is prepared for this situation by having alternate officials on call. We’ve had games with two referees before, but there’s no rule that forces replacements to be on standby. It’s common practice during the playoffs because there are fewer games.

Players have been more upset than usual with the officiating this season, prompting the NBA to talk about how to better the relationships between the two parties. Hopefully, they discuss keeping a third official on hand for instances like this. Thursday game had no playoff implications behind it, so it was virtually meaningless to both teams because they’re still two of the league’s three best teams.

Start a conversation with me on Twitter