Thanks to BM for sending me this very interesting link:
An academic study of NBA officiating found little to no evidence that referees favor teams from large media markets in the playoffs, a favorite conspiracy theory of skeptical fans. But the same study found that NBA referees tend to favor home teams, teams trailing in a game and teams trailing in a playoff series. […] The researchers found that each type of favoritism — home, trailing in a game and trailing in a series — resulted in a 5 to 10 percent advantage in “discretionary” turnovers, or ones over which referees have the most influence. The researchers do not attempt to explain what the percentages could mean in actual wins and losses.
This is both more psychologically plausible than standard “conspiracy theory” views, and you can also see how these kind of problems could conflict because they tend to be good for revenue. In particular, home team advantage is good for sports leagues. There’s clear evidence linking attendance to wins — fans like to go see their team win. So things that bias the system toward the home team tending to win are likely to increase ticket sales. Similarly, long playoff series mean money. Thus, insofar as human psychology is inclining referees toward these biases, the league has little incentive to push back.
At any rate, this is basically how the godlike AI behind NBA Jam ran things — if you fell way behind, then suddenly John Starks would become a completely unstoppable three point shooter and next thing you know, the Knicks are right back in the running.