The Houston Rockets faced a serious challenge heading into Game 2 of their opening-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. After getting blown out 120-91 in Game 1, Houston needed an excellent performance and several breaks. For the most part, they got the game they needed, riding a small-ball lineup and a successful 2-3 zone to come back from a 15-point deficit and take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. And while the Thunder fought back to lead 98-97 with just over a minute left in regulation, the Rockets had to feel good about their chances in a very tough road contest.
Unfortunately, they were on the wrong side of one of the worst breaks a team can get. With 60 seconds on the clock, Kevin Durant drove left, drew the attention of the Houston defense and found a wide open Thabo Sefolosha on the right wing for a game-changing 3-pointer. The shot pushed the lead to two possessions, and the Rockets never got a real possession with the lead at three points or less again (Carlos Delfino's 81-foot heave at the buzzer would have tied the game, but that doesn't really count). The Thunder won 105-102, and this basket was a big reason why.
However, video evidence shows that Sefolosha's shot probably shouldn't have counted. He was so open in part because Thunder center Kendrick Perkins grabbed the right arm of Houston wing Chandler Parsons as he attempted to close out on the shot. Both Parsons and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale complained after the play, but their cries fell on deaf ears.
Watch the video above, and follow us after the jump for more discussion of the play and its impact.
After the game, Parsons shrugged off the non-foul enough to avoid a suspension. From Jonathan Feigen for the Houston Chronicle:
“Clearly obvious what Perkins did to me,” Parsons said. “He grabbed me with two hands. I couldn’t go out there and contest Sefolosha. It’s part of the game.”
This is part of the game insofar as players use many rule-skirting tactics to gain an advantage, but it was also pretty clearly a foul. Although referees are known to let certain forms of contact slide in the final possessions of close games, grabbing a departing player by the arm with a full minute on the clock does not quite qualify. Simply put, it looks like the referees missed the call. While there's no guarantee that Parsons would have affected the result if he'd been able to run free — Sefolosha was really, really open — Perkins committed an infraction that deserved a whistle.
It's impossible to determine the exact impact of the non-call, and the Rockets were certainly not assured of coming away with a win. On the next possession, James Harden split a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 101-98. The basic rules of cause and effect tell us that we can't assume the Rockets would have tied the game if the Thunder had a mere one-point lead, but it's also hard to underrate the importance of playing in a one-possession game vs. a two-possession game. Houston showed an ability to score on Oklahoma City in the next two possessions, coming away with two points on each, and it's reasonable to think they could have scored in a closer game, as well. And even though they allowed Serge Ibaka to knock down a 19-foot jumper with 31 seconds left to push the lead to 103-98, the Rockets wouldn't have had to foul on OKC's next possession. The Rockets didn't play a flawless final minute by any means, but they also had a much smaller margin for error. Perhaps things would have gone differently if Sefolosha's basket hadn't counted.
The Thunder would be considered the favorites in the series even if it were tied at 1-1 with three games left in Houston — they're the top seed in the West and have much greater playoff experience than the young Rockets. Yet that doesn't mean this missed call doesn't matter, particularly given Houston's youth and the comfort of playing at home that goes along with it. The Rockets are a long shot to win this series, but a different result could have drastically changed things. We just don't know.
Fan confidence in NBA referees is alarmingly low for fairly good reasons, but any claims to a conspiracy against the Rockets make little sense. Houston shot 25 free throws to OKC's 24, with Harden getting 20 attempts, including four in the final minute. Instead, this missed call is a lesson in a harsh fact of playoff basketball. In a best-of-seven series, a late call in a close game can change the course of the entire playoffs, particularly if the call derails an upset bid. (Frankly, this phenomenon happens in every sport. The NBA probably protects against it best, because the series are all long and basketball has enough scoring plays to limit the impact of any single call.)
The Rockets learned this reality the hard way on Wednesday. They have good reason to be upset, and it wouldn't be terribly shocking if the NBA publicly announces that the officials missed the call. But Parsons is right, if indirectly: Missed calls are part of the game. They're not fair or correct, and the wronged team has the right to get mad about them. Unfortunately, everyone agrees to submit to the essential arbitrariness of officiating when they step on the court. We can only hope the referees do better next time.