In the NBA playoffs, teams will take any advantage they can get to win games and advance to the next round. What the San Antonio Spurs did in the final seconds of Game 6 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, though, blurred the line between the resourceful and the devious.
Perhaps the Spurs were simply surprised by an improbable comeback. With 20 seconds left and the Spurs down 111-105, Gregg Popovich appeared to concede the game by subbing out his entire lineup. Yet it turned out to be a stroke of genius, with Danny Green and Patty Mills each hitting a three-pointer in the final 12 seconds to make the score 113-111 with just seven seconds on the clock. With San Antonio lacking a timeout to advance the ball, it appeared that the Mavericks would just need to hit some free throws to finish off the game. Unfortunately for them, Monta Ellis turned some agile, time-killing dribbling into a disaster by throwing a wild pass to the baseline under the Spurs' basket. They would have a chance at a desperation play with 1.3 seconds left in the game.
That's when the Spurs made what was either a careless mistake or a bold move to avoid a Game 7 and finish off the series. The play itself didn't work out — Ellis deflected the pass out of bounds, and Patty Mills missed a fallaway three-pointer on the next play. However, the initial pass shouldn't have been allowed, because, as pointed out by Bill Barnwell of Grantland, the Spurs had six players on the court. Take a look at the video:
Here's what happened: Boris Diaw entered the game to throw the inbounds pass, except no one subbed out. So the Spurs had five players — Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Tim Duncan, and Kawhi Leonard — against four Mavericks defenders in the frontcourt. Such a situation should have given Dallas a technical free throw, but referees failed to make the call. Ellis and Jae Crowder pleaded for a technical, but none came. It would seem that counting the correct number of players should serve as a basic task for any official, but maybe they got caught up in the moment with the rest of us.
If the Spurs had come through with a miracle play on the pass (or any time after), the Mavericks would have had the ability to request a do-over. This wasn't always the case. In December 2008, the Portland Trail Blazers scored in such a situation against the Boston Celtics and were later assessed a technical for the error, except the points couldn't be wiped out after the fact. The rule was changed in March 2009, thankfully.
Oh, and we know all this because the Mavericks were on the other side of things the last time it happened. In January 2013, they had six players on the court against the Blazers and were handed a tech.
The good news is that the referees' failure to make the call had no effect on the result and did not tarnish an incredibly entertaining and well played game. The two teams will face off again on Sunday in Game 7 for the chance to move into the second round. Here's hoping neither the Spurs nor the Mavs has more than five guys on the court at any time.
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