OKLAHOMA CITY – Fresh off a stunning collapse that had pushed his Los Angeles Clippers within a game of season's end, still fuming over a controversial replay call he would later lament as potentially "series-defining," coach Doc Rivers marched out of the locker room late Tuesday with fury in his eyes. He headed toward the interview room only to spot Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett walking past in the hallway.
"Wow!" Rivers yelled at Bennett. "Why can't we get the right replay?"
Bennett, perhaps still stunned by his unlikely change in fortune, didn't say a word in response and just kept walking.
Rivers, however, wasn't going to stay quiet. Not after the hotly contested out-of-bounds ruling contributed to the Clippers surrendering a seven-point lead in the final 49.2 seconds of the 105-104 loss. Not after the Thunder's improbable victory left the Clippers down 3-2 and a loss from elimination in the best-of-seven series.
The call in question came with 11.3 seconds left and the Clippers leading 104-102. Chris Paul had braced for a foul, only to have Russell Westbrook force the ball from his hands. Thunder guard Reggie Jackson drove to the rim and was hit on the hand by Matt Barnes, jarring the ball out of bounds. The officials did not call a foul on Barnes, but said the Thunder retained possession. They stopped play to look at TV replays to determine who touched the ball last.
The replays appeared to indicate Jackson had last touched the ball. The officials said otherwise, giving Oklahoma City possession. After Paul was called for a foul on a 3-point attempt by Westbrook and Westbrook made all three of his free throws, the Thunder suddenly had the lead – improbable given that they had trailed by 13 just four minutes earlier.
"It was our ball," Rivers said. "Everybody knows that it was our ball. I think the bottom line they thought it was a foul and they made up for it. In my opinion, let's take away replay. Let's take away the replay system because that's our ball. We win the game and we got robbed because of that play.
"It's clear. Everybody in the arena saw it. That is why everybody was shocked when they said Oklahoma City [ball]. That was our ball."
Rivers and the Clippers watched the replay on the arena's overhead scoreboard as the referees – Tony Brothers, Tom Washington and Bennett Salvatore – reviewed it on a television monitor. The scoreboard had a notation that said it was the same replay angles the referees were viewing. Rivers was so confident the Clippers would be awarded the ball that he grabbed his clipboard during the timeout and drew up an offensive play.
According to NBA official rule No. 8, Section 11, "If a player has his hand in contact with the ball and an opponent hits the hand causing the ball to go out-of-bounds, the team whose player had his hand on the ball retains possession." In a statement after the game, Brothers – the crew chief – said the referees determined the replay was "inconclusive."
"We saw two replays," Brothers said. "The two replays we saw were from the overhead camera showing down, and the one from under the basket showing the same angle but a different view. And from those two replays, it was inconclusive as to whom the ball went out of bounds off of. When it's inconclusive, we have to go with the call that's on the floor."
The entire Clippers bench complained in disbelief after the call. Rivers looked at Washington, who was closest to the play, and yelled, "That was you. That was our ball." Barnes later looked squarely at Washington and said, "That was [expletive]."
"I'm willing to bet my kids that it was off of [Jackson]," Barnes said. "But the referees didn't think so."
Said Rivers: "That could be a series-defining call, and that's not right."
Jackson appeared to have been fouled by Barnes, but foul calls aren't allowed to be reviewed. In the Clippers' first-round opening game against the Golden State Warriors, a similar play happened when officials neglected to call an obvious foul on Draymond Green against Paul, but reversed an out-of-bounds call when it was clear the ball went off Paul. The following day, the league released a statement saying the officials missed the foul call, but correctly used the replay guidelines.
"The league can issue a statement tomorrow saying the ball was off them," Paul said. "Who gives a …. we lost."
Rivers and Paul said they were told by the referees that they didn't have the right replay to change the call. That contention is likely what sparked Rivers to yell at Bennett, the Thunder owner, after the game.
"We did a lot of stuff in the game ourselves," Rivers said. "But at the end of the day, we have a replay system that you're supposed to look at it. I don't want to hear that they didn't have that replay. That's a bunch of crap."
Kevin Durant started OKC's final, furious comeback with a 3-pointer with 43.7 seconds left. After Clippers guard Jamal Crawford missed a lay-up, Durant made a lay-in with 17.8 seconds left to trim the deficit to 104-102.
Westbrook then made the key play, stealing the ball from Paul with 13.9 seconds left.
"The turnover with [13.9] seconds left, assuming they were going to foul, is the dumbest play I ever made," Paul said. "To even put it in the officials' hands to call a foul on a three is just bad basketball."
Paul compounded his mistake on the ensuing possession by fouling Westbrook on a 3-point attempt with 6.4 seconds left. Westbrook made all three free throws to give the Thunder a stunning 105-104 lead.
The Clippers had one last chance to win, but Paul's drive to the basket ended with a steal by Jackson.
"One of the things I tell our guys is, 'Never, never put your head down. Keep playing until the last second,' " Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
Paul blamed only himself, not the referees.
"It's probably the toughest thing I've been through basketball-wise," Paul said. "It's just me. Everything that happened there in the end is on me."
The Clippers have dealt with both controversy and adversity this postseason, much of it coming from owner Donald Sterling and the racist comments he made. They won a deciding Game 7 in the first round to knock off the Golden State Warriors and now must win at home on Thursday and then a Game 7 on Sunday in OKC to reach the Western Conference finals.
"You got to keep playing," Paul said. "But this one is bad, though."
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