Swallowing The Whistle

Last night, the Thunder beat the Spurs 98-97 in San Antonio, only the second loss for the Spurs at home this entire season.

The ending was wild.

The Thunder were up 4 with around 20 seconds to go.  The Spurs inbounded the ball after calling two consecutive time outs, which seems like a bad idea until you remember that Pop is a genius/possibly can incept minds, and the Thunder fouled LaMarcus Aldridge, a career 25.7% 3-point shooter who had missed all of his 3-point attempts during this year’s regular season, while he was shooting a 3-pointer.  So the time outs worked for San Antonio.

After Aldridge hit all three free throws, the Thunder were only up one with 13.5 seconds to go.  Billy Donovan, the Thunder coach, immediately called his final time out, a decision I immediately criticized (you can ask Lex).  I think coaches often overuse time outs on the offensive end at the end of games and it’s always risky to use a last time out in an unnecessary situation.  Using a time out in this situation lets San Antonio set their defense; usually it’s hard for a defense to get set after a made basket and prevent the team from successfully inbounding the ball.  Plus, when inbounding under one’s own hoop after a made basket the inbounding player can run the baseline, which is very helpful for being able to get the ball in.  Also, in the event that the Thunder have difficulty getting the ball inbounds, the time out could come in handy to prevent a 5-second call and a turnover.  And in the event of the reasonably likely scenario in which the Thunder inbound the ball, get fouled, make one or two free throws, and then the Spurs tie it up on anything other than a buzzer beater, the time out would be very valuable to advance the ball and have a decent attempt to win the game before overtime.

Though the Thunder won, I think I was vindicated.

The Thunder had a hard time getting anyone open, which isn’t surprising because the Spurs are athletic, well coached, and feature Sharknado-in-the-flesh Kawhi Leonard.  So the time out would have been handy.

Chaos then ensued.

Manu Ginobli, while guarding Dion Waiters, the inbounder, stepped over the sideline, which is a violation and which went uncalled.

Then, Kawhi Leonard grabbed a fist full of Russell Westbrook’s jersey, which went uncalled.  Shortly afterwards, Dion Waiters extended a shove into Manu Ginobli, sending him (flopping?) backwards and clearing enough space for a pass to be lobbed into the middle of the court.  The shove was not called.  The Spurs then stole the ball from an off-balance Kevin Durant and had a fast break, making it seem inevitable that they would take the lead.  But they didn’t.  After a few passes that were far from crisp, Patty Mills found himself in the corner for a 3-pointer.  Despite not needing a 3 and not being a great 3-point shooter, Mills took a 3, which missed horribly.  His shot was contested by Steven Adams, who went falling into the stands, which is a fairly common occurrence at NBA games because the fans sit so close the court.  What is quite uncommon, is that a person sitting courtside grabbed Adams’s arm, which slowed him from returning to the court.  This didn’t affect the game, but absolutely could have and likely should have resulted in technical foul against the Spurs; nothing was called.

Mills’s airball caused a scrum underneath the hoop.  Serge Ibaka battled Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge for the ball.  It was sloppy and the Spurs couldn’t get a decent shot off before time expired, giving the Thunder a win.  Photos and video show that perhaps Ibaka fouled Aldridge.  No foul was called.

It didn’t take long for criticism to rain down on the officials.  Chris Webber, one of the TV commentators, was particularly irate about the lack of a call when Waiters hit Ginobli.  His anger was so intense that many speculated online that he had lost a lot of money gambling on the game (see, e.g., this).  The legendary Magic Johnson went so far as to call the it “the worst missed call in playoff history.”

Personally, I’m fine with the way the game played out and not just because I’m a big Russell Westbrook fan.  At the end of any game there will be lots of things that could be called violations and/or fouls.  I’d rather games be decided by players playing through contact than a whistle for each little shove, grab, or hand check.

Spurs fans, Chris Webber, and Magic Johnson can bemoan the lack of a call on Waiters, but before that happened if we’re going to go by the rules and call everything, there should have been a technical called on Manu Ginobli anyway so the Thunder should have had a free throw and another opportunity to inbound the ball.  And Kawhi Leonard should have been called for a foul for grabbing Westrbook’s jersey and preventing him from getting open.  Because that foul occurred with less than two minutes to go, the Thunder would get a free throw by anyone on their team and the ball back.  But even if those calls weren’t made and the call on Waiters was made, the Spurs would have had the ball back, which they got anyway.  And not only did the Spurs get the ball, they had a three-on-one break, a much more advantageous situation than any reasonable scenario after an inbounds play.

Not only would a call on Waiters not have improved the Spurs’s situation, again, I’d much rather let the the end of games play out with fewer rather than more calls by refs.  The end of the game was madness.  It was fun.  Let’s enjoy it rather than wish we had seen more free throws and more stops of play.

Here and here are some articles detailing the missed calls that include video clips of the various plays.

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