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As Houston Rockets star James Harden was preparing to take a free throw with his team trailing the Jazz, 76-68, at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday, whistles blew and Harden suddenly stopped, looked up to his left and signaled to the stands. For a second there, it looked like he was about to throw the ball into the seats.
What was the All-Star shooting guard so ticked off about? Apparently, a fan was shining a light in his eyes to throw him off. From Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
“Some guy was lasering me,” Harden said. “I saw it the first time and I thought it was a picture being taken. I went to the foul line again and it happened again. The referee (Tom Washington) caught it before I did. That’s the first time that happened to me.”
The unexpected and unwelcome light-shining sparked a stoppage in the game as arena ushers and security searched for the unofficial and unwanted sixth man.
"In the end, it was a fan with a flashlight who was found to be the culprit, according to a Jazz official," wrote Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune after the game. "The fan was escorted out of the arena and will receive a one-year ban from NBA arenas."
On one hand, I'd be down with a longer ban than a year for trying to blind a dude. On the other, it'd probably seem a little crazy to adopt longer bans for shining a light from the stands than for leaping out of the bleachers and literally running onto the court in the middle of a game. (A modest proposal: longer bans for both!)
In any event, when play resumed after an LED-inspired interlude of about two minutes, Harden missed his second free throw. Congratulations, Lightbringer. Hope that was worth a year-long heave-ho.
After trailing a Jazz squad playing without injured starters Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors by as many as 15 points with 4 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter — oh, those Rockets! — Houston scratched its way back into the proceedings with a quarter-closing 12-5 run in which Harden scored all 12 Rocket points. Harden would add nine more in the fourth quarter, as the Rockets clamped down on the short-handed and tired Jazz to take a two-point lead with just under two minutes remaining.
A minute and a half later, with Houston still clinging to a two-point lead, Harden got one hell of a karmic repayment for that third-quarter lasering indignity:
After rejecting a screen from forward Trevor Booker, Jazz point guard Trey Burke drove left into the lane, getting a step on Rockets defender Trevor Ariza and barreling down the middle of the floor As Rockets center Dwight Howard stepped up to stop the ball, his man, Utah reserve Jeff Withey, snuck behind him along the baseline for a dump-off pass. Burke hit him, and he rose up for a dunk that would knot the game at 91 ... except Withey missed, thanks in large part to Harden crashing down from the corner, and into his back. (Houston forward Montrezl Harrell sure seemed to clock Withey in the chops on his attempt to block the shot, too.)
And yet, no foul was called, leaving Jazz fans — and players — pretty stunned.
"I was pretty surprised," Withey said after the game, according to Falk of the Tribune. "I felt a lot of contact, but the refs kind of let us play the whole game, so I don’t know. I don’t want to say too much about it."
“All 10 players on the floor stopped," said Jazz swingman Rodney Hood after the game, according to Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News. "I think everybody on the floor assumed it was going to be a foul, but it wasn’t and we had to come down and foul at that point.’’
Booker fouled Rockets veteran Jason Terry, who missed the back-end of his two free throws, giving Houston a 92-89 lead and giving Utah one more chance. On the ensuing play, Hood — just one day removed from the birth of his first child — rose up for a potential game-tying 3-pointer, only to be fouled by Harden in the act of shooting. The refs did call that one, sending Hood to the line for three freebies ... but he missed the last one, which the Rockets rebounded, holding on for a 93-91 victory and snap a four-game losing streak. Harden led the way with 30 points on 9-for-25 shooting, seven assists, five rebounds and one block (albeit with an unsightly eight turnovers) in 42 minutes.
The no-call on Withey loomed large in the two-point defeat, to the point that local media sought an explanation from the officials ... only to come away empty-handed, according to Andy Larsen of KSL.com:
After the game, I was informed that it was possible to ask the referees to comment on the play, through a "pool reporter." The process is this: the media requests to speak with the crew chief of the officiating staff about a specific play or plays during the game. Then, the team PR officer of the media making the request and the pool reporter go and knock on the door. The referees are notified about the request, and can choose to either accept or decline the interview request.
I went through the process, acting as the "pool reporter," about two plays that occurred: the aforementioned Withey non-call, and the foul call on Hood at the end of the game. We knocked on the door, and the referees told us that they would not be answering questions about the plays, and that was that.
While the refs declined to address the play, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder did, refusing to bemoan harsh fate or blind zebras for the end of his team's two-game winning streak.
“In the end, it’s not one thing,’’ he said, according to Sorensen of the News. “I don’t think one call was the game. I don’t think one missed jumper was the game. I don’t think one free throw was the game. It’s easy to look for those things, I do it too. I don’t think it helps us get better to fixate on anything."
You'll be shocked to learn that everything about that play seemed totally kosher to Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who improved to 13-12 since taking over for the fired Kevin McHale.
"[Harrell] had a great blocked shot," Bickerstaff said, according to Feigen of the Chronicle. "A lot of people here were crying about it. It looked good to me."
No word yet on whether anyone shined a laser in his eye.
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