NBA officials miss enough calls, whether in major situations or not, that it's foolish for anyone to expect them to be perfect. Yet it's not unreasonable to believe that referees will understand when and how they're allowed to apply their judgment based on the NBA rulebook. From the point of view of the Chicago Bulls, that rationale justifies their anger over the final seconds of their home game against the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
With just 5.7 seconds left in overtime and the Nuggets leading, Bulls guard Marco Belinelli took the inbounds pass near midcourt and dribbled down the left side of the court. With roughly 3.2 seconds on the clock, he hoisted up an out-of-control jumper while falling out of bounds near the baseline, and the shot appeared destined to fall short. That's when hyperactive All-Star center Joakim Noah soared over Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler to tip the ball in with his left hand for an apparent game-winner. It was a terrific effort.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, the triumph was short-lived. The referees reviewed the play and determined that the ball was over the cylinder when Noah touched it, thereby constituting offensive basket interference. This change did not make Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau happy, and he immediately began to yell some not particularly nice words at the referees. Denver's ensuing inbounds pass was uneventful, and the Bulls were saddled with the loss.
Yet, according to Thibodeau, the issue had nothing to do with Noah touching the ball over the cylinder. Rather, it's that the play never should have been reviewed in the first place. Check out the video of the scene above (via Mike Prada of SB Nation), and join us after the jump for a full explanation of exactly what went wrong.
According to this screen shot from NBA savant Mark Deeks, it looks like Noah touched the ball while it was over the basket.
Joakim Noah appears to interfere with the shot (via @MarkDeeksNBA).
The play was close enough that it wouldn't have been shocking to see the officials determine that the evidence was inconclusive. Nevertheless, it does look like interference, and in that case it is the correct call.
The problem is that the NBA rulebook only allows referees to use replay to overturn a preexisting interference call, not to reverse a non-call. Deeks explained the issue on Twitter:
Interference calls can be reviewed if under 2 mins, but non-calls can't. Yet in this instance, one was and one wasn't. Not good.
— Mark Deeks (@MarkDeeksNBA) March 19, 2013
(The second play Deeks refers to occurred at the 46-second mark in overtime when Nuggets center Kosta Koufos reached over the cylinder to tip in an offensive rebound to give the Nuggets a one-point lead. The screenshot suggests that the play should have been called as interference, but it was not reviewable because the points were initially counted.)
At present (roughly 12:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday), opinion differs as to what was called on the floor. Deeks checked the video and tweeted that the two visible officials did not call interference, although the third would have had the best angle. Reports from inside the building — including this one from Chicago Tribune beat writer K.C. Johnson — are inconclusive.
The Bulls, though not quite impartial observers, are adamant that the call was originally a basket. From Johnson's game story:
"They went to the timeout and then they decided they were going to review," Thibodeau said. "I didn't see them call it. And I watched on the replay and didn't see it called there."
Noah, using two expletives, said officials called "basket" on the floor.
"It's very disappointing," Noah said. "You play the game so hard. I just don't understand how you can review my tip-in, but two plays before that, you can't review the other one? There has to be consistency. The refs are doing the best they can. But it cost us the game."
Added Carlos Boozer: "They counted the bucket, put the points up on the board. We're obviously excited and celebrating. Their bench started screaming to review and [officials] reviewed and took it away." [...]
"Don't understand it one bit," Thibodeau said. "Koufos' play, I asked him why they didn't review it. Clearly, it was on the rim. They told me because they didn't make the call they couldn't review it. I thought we had the video stuff to make sure we got it right. Those are tough calls, bang-bang plays. I understand that. But I don't understand why one is reviewable and the other isn't. After watching the replay, and I watched it when it occurred, none of them made the call on that either."
The Nuggets' immediate reaction to the play would suggest they wanted a change in the ruling, although it's possible that was a reflex to the ball going through the hoop, not a function of the specific call on the floor. Plus, the referees didn't ask for a review of the Koufos finish on the Bulls' home floor, which would suggest that they know the rule. So, they either made the interference call on Noah in the first place, momentarily forgot the rule, or have it out for the Bulls. Paranoiacs unite!
If Noah's basket was counted to begin with, then the Bulls have a good case that they were robbed. However, it also seems like this rule should be changed. While there are many reasons to limit stoppages late in games, the NBA has seemingly cast its lot in allowing more replay situations with every passing season. There's no obvious reason why incorrect calls should be allowed for made baskets but not for goaltending and offensive interference. Why should these calls only be reversed when it helps the offense?
Again, Chicago has a right to be upset if they're correct about the initial call. They just seem to be arguing on a technicality rather than the spirit of the law.
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