The NBA has seen its fair share of questionable calls, but the circumstances in the final seconds of Tuesday night's Game 5 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers arguably reached new heights of confusion. With the Clippers up 104-102 and mere seconds on the clock, the Thunder forced a turnover from Chris Paul that ended up in the hands of Reggie Jackson. After an apparent but not-called foul by Matt Barnes, Jackson fumbled the ball out of bounds, only for the referees to determine it had gone off Barnes.
The ensuing replay review seemed to show the ball actually went off Jackson. Given that referees cannot assess a foul off a replay, it appeared that the Clippers would end up with the ball, in large part because they were on the other side of this issue earlier in the postseason. But the call was not overturned, the Thunder went on to win, and Clips head coach Doc Rivers got really upset.
It seemed likely that the league would issue an apology on Wednesday for the missed foul and subsequent replay debacle. However, NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said that the correct call was made. Here's the explanation from the press release:
“With 11.3 seconds left in the game, the basketball went out of bounds on the baseline and the referees ruled the ball belonged to the Thunder. The referees then used instant replay to review the play. In order to reverse the call made on the court, there has to be ‘clear and conclusive’ evidence. Since no replay provided such evidence, the play correctly stood as called with the Thunder retaining possession.”
This statement is in keeping with the explanation given by referee crew chief Tony Brothers after Game 5:
And here's the play itself, if you want another look:
Referees can claim inconclusive evidence in many situations, but it sounds like an evasion of the issue here. Depending on various interpretations of the rules — all of which are explained in detail by Zach Harper of Eye on Basketball in this helpful post — the call could have been awarded to the Thunder on the basis of Barnes hitting Jackson in the hand, which can be seen as part of the ball. The only thing that didn't seem up for debate, no matter the outcome, was that Jackson touched the ball last.
Not saying as much feels like a way to avoid a complicated issue regarding the point of replay reviews. If referees miss a call that can't be overturned but correctly assess the one aspect of the play that can be changed, was justice served? Why should we allow certain reviews but not others? Is it worth stopping play for several minutes to create even greater controversies?
Instead of addressing these issues, whether indirectly or not, the NBA has given a superficially transparent statement that only adds to the confusion. If replays exist to get calls right, then it's unclear exactly what sort of result we all ended up with for this play.
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