The Toronto Raptors dug themselves a massive hole on Wednesday night, giving up 67 first-half points to a Sacramento Kings team that feasted on Dwane Casey's defense by attacking the rim, getting to the foul line (23 of 28 from the stripe at intermission) and pounding the offensive glass (11 offensive rebounds in the first two quarters, leading to 16 second-chance points). Despite trailing by 20 points entering the fourth, though, the Atlantic Division-leading Raps came back to make a game of it thanks to the long-range bombing of reserve Steve Novak (all 12 of his points in the quarter), the bruising interior work of Jonas Valanciunas (seven points, six rebounds and a block in eight-plus final-frame minutes) and the all-court contributions of point guard Kyle Lowry, who dished four assists, grabbed three rebounds, blocked a shot, snagged a steal and applied enough pressure to propel Toronto to within two possessions of the lead in the final minute.
After creating a mountain to climb and doing the hard work to get within hailing distance of its summit, the Raptors found themselves with the ball, 28.5 seconds remaining, and a chance to cut Sacramento's lead to a mere three points. Instead, things went the other way, thanks to what I think we can safely describe as a questionable whistle:
With 28.5 ticks left on the game clock, Raptors forward John Salmons triggers the inbounds pass to Toronto shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. As he does so, Novak cuts from the left elbow to the left corner, taking rookie defender Ben McLemore around a muddled screen from Lowry (and, by extension, Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas) in the process. Thomas switches the pick to follow the dangerous Novak into the short corner, but McLemore loses his footing along the baseline on the play, briefly leaving Lowry all by his lonesome. DeRozan grabs the pass, looks to his right, sees Lowry running free to the 3-point arc on the right wing, and delivers the pass.
Lowry catches, elevates and hoists a 3-pointer; a hard-charging and shot-contesting McLemore's left hip makes contact with Lowry's body in the air, sending the two to the ground in a heap. Lowry's shot splashes through. So that's 105-102 Kings, with Lowry headed to the line for a chance at a four-point play that will bring Sacramento within two, right?
Well, it would be if referee Eric Lewis (No. 42 there, at the bottom of your screen) hadn't called it an offensive foul on Lowry for intentionally kicking his legs out to create the contact with McLemore and draw the call. (This would be the so-called "Reggie Miller rule" that the league made a point of emphasis before the start of the 2012-13 season.) Whether you think Lowry deliberately stuck his right leg out to force a whistle or see both of his legs moving forward as part of the momentum of his shot will likely depend largely on whether you see the world through black-and-red lenses or purple-and-white ones, similar to the difference of opinion between New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets fans after Jason Kidd's controversial kick-featuring, game-winning 3-pointer early last season.
What's inarguable, though, is that the call represented a major swing in the game. Not only did it wipe three (and perhaps four) Raptors points off the board and give possession of the basketball back to the Kings, but it also gave the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week six fouls, disqualifying him from the final 25 seconds of the contest. (Lowry's shock-and-awe full-court sprint of disbelief after the call also earned him a second technical foul, meaning he would've been ejected even if he hadn't already fouled out.) Toronto lost their leader, their top playmaker, their momentum and — after Thomas and ex-Raptor Rudy Gay each hit a pair of free throws surrounding a missed DeRozan 3-pointer — the game, with the Kings holding on for a 109-101 win.
You can't say that the call cost Toronto the game; as Zach Salzmann of RaptorsHQ notes, "the Raptors did not deserve to win this game [because] they were atrocious for more than 3 quarters," letting the Kings bull their way to the basket while settling for jumpers on the other end and coughing the ball up 18 times, leading to 26 Sacramento points. Still, though, losing the chance to complete your comeback bid stings, especially when it comes against a team with whom you just completed a fairly large trade and against a player who was kind of a disaster for you, but has morphed into a pretty stellar performer for his new team. (Gay finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and three assists in 42 1/2 minutes of work.)
Lowry, who finished with a team-high 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, didn't want to talk about it after the game:
No comment from Lowry. "I can't say what I want to say"
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) February 6, 2014
The Kings, as you might expect, were a little more talkative. From Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee:
“At first I thought they called the foul on Ben,” [Kings head coach Mike] Malone said. “Then it was going to be another four-point play and déjà vu all over again. Obviously, they called the leg kick, so there was a little sigh of relief.”
Had the call gone the other way, the Kings (17-32) might have found themselves explaining how they’d fallen apart in the fourth quarter. Instead, they won their second game in a row before a four-game trip that will take them into the All-Star break.
“I thought I had a great contest,” McLemore said. “I knew I didn’t foul him and I fell pretty hard and I knew I didn’t just fall on my own. I looked up, and the ref was calling the offensive foul.”
The "déjà vu" Malone's referring to goes back a couple of weeks to a four-point play pulled out by Paul George of the Indiana Pacers to force overtime in a game the Kings would eventually lose. As our Eric Freeman wrote at the time, George was very fortunate to get the benefit of the call on that play. Perhaps, then, this was a bit of karmic retribution for the Kings.
If that's the case, though, the Raptors have to be wondering when they're going to get their big payback. Toronto's been on the business end of quite a few calls that have gone against them and merited eventual apology in the past; it remains to be seen whether newly minted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was in attendance at Wednesday's game, will feel the need to issue another reffa culpa from the league office on this one.
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