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Phoenix Suns problems with officials affecting games in more ways than technicals

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Not only are the Suns enacting their own punishment for players getting technicals, the officials may also be developing a bias against the Suns by swallowing their whistles on drives to the hoop by Suns players.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns are 28-22 this season to date, sitting in 8th place in the playoff standings but feeling the pressure of two teams pushing them from behind while the teams in front of them are putting up a cement wall.

It doesn't help that the refs have no interest in helping you out.

"We have a kind of bad reputation with refs," Dragic said after the loss on Monday. "Sometimes we don't get a call and they (the opponent) can be extra aggressive."

A year ago, the Suns got to the line 29% of the time on their shots (a shooting foul called, or 'FTr'), good for 12th in the league.

This year, with the same coach, same players and same scheme, the Suns get to the free throw line on just 25% of their shots, ranking 26th in the league.

And that's with the only rotation player change going from Channing Frye (12% FTr) to Isaiah Thomas (40% FTr), indicating their FTr should go up, not down.

But down its gone.

Let's be clear, here. The referees are just calling the games as they see them. Every fan base in the NBA thinks the refs are against them. Sure there are bad calls in games, but those generally even out over the course of the contest. To wit, how often do you see your opponent's fans saying "wow, the refs won us that game! Thanks refs!". You don't. And there's a reason: refs are not biased against teams.

And the Suns have a lot more problems than the referees though. They commit silly turnovers, don't execute plays in crunch time and tend to fall into the 'hero ball' trap at the wrong time.

"But then we get turnovers," Dragic said, taking blame off the refs. "So that was on our end for sure."

However, it's always been true that there are personal biases against (or for) certain players. It's just human nature. Some players have a hard-nosed reputation, so the refs don't call as many touch fouls against them because it's so commonplace. Chris Paul gets away with a lot of contact, as does Eric Bledsoe, because that's more the norm than not.

And some players have a bad reputation for arguing more often than they should. Refs don't like being yelled at. Nobody does. And if they feel disrespected, they are bound to subconsciously retaliate.

Both Marcus and Markieff Morris got techs from the refs this past weekend for complaining during timeouts. In Marcus' case, he wasn't even in the game at the time. He just yelled at the officials from the sideline. But they aren't getting any slack, and we T'd up immediately in each case.

"We need to be smarter," Dragic said. "We know it's gonna be tough to get a call. We just need to play through that and try to make something happen."

He has hopes that might change later in the season if the Suns stop barking so much.

"Maybe in the future that will change," he said, "If we are gonna be solid and stop talking."

Dragic's own free throw rate (the percentage of shots that end up in drawing a free throw or two) has dropped in half this season, from a career high last year of 38.1% of his shot attempts resulting in a free throw to a career low of 19.2% this season. Dragic had never been below 29%, which was his rookie season.

Dragic has been driving less (7.2 drives per game this season vs. 9.6 a year ago as the lone PG half the season), but that doesn't explain his FTr dropping in half.

I asked Dragic whether he's changed his game at all this season, to explain the drop in free throw rate.

"No," he said with a shrug, "I'm always looking for contact."

Markieff Morris' free throw rate has dropped as well. Last year, he had a career high 38.7% FTr, dropping to just 19% this year. He was at 19.4% and 24% in his first two seasons, though, so the drop is not as precipitous as Dragic's. Keef has evolved into a jumper shooter more than a driver, and he's playing against starting PFs rather than backups.

Twin brother Marcus Morris has dropped from 24% free throw rate to just 12% this year, by far a career low.

P.J. Tucker's free throw rate has dropped from last year's career high of 32.7% to 21.3% this year, but he was only 19% in his rookie Suns season of 2012-13 when he was decidedly more reckless.

Are the refs swallowing their whistles, at least on the offensive end? Maybe. Goran Dragic certainly thinks that's the case.

But not everyone is suffering from a potential "swallow the whistle" epidemic, though.

Eric Bledsoe is at a career high of 42.6% of this attempts resulting in free throws, matching last season and a huge jump from his Clippers days.

Isaiah Thomas is at a career high 41% free throw rate this season, increasing every year of his young career, though he commits more fouls so far this year than any previous year (4.5 per 100 possessions).

The other rotation players have no significant difference in their free throw rates this season versus last year.

Could the refs be swallowing their whistles on Suns drives this year? Or is this just a function of the Suns offense changing?

The Suns are driving to the hole more often than ever. Last year, they averaged 25 drives per game (not including fast breaks), while this year it's up to 28.8 drives per game.  These are just half-court drives, not including those that come naturally on fast breaks. The Suns again score a ton on fast breaks too, just like last year.

Maybe the refs are getting too used to the Suns drives, and are expecting contact before it happens? Maybe that's why they only make the call on something egregious rather than commonplace?

Who knows, but something is happening.