With 12.3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder trailed by two, 98-96, with the chance to complete a mammoth comeback and either tie the Miami Heat or take an 11th-hour lead. With the game on the line, three-time MVP LeBron James made good on his pregame promise to guard three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who'd scorched the Heat with 26 second-half points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. Except that, for a second, James wasn't too attentive a defender.
As the play began, James turned and faced the baseline, apparently expecting Durant to break toward the 3-point line off the whistle and positioning himself to be able to impede the Thunder star's motion toward the ball. He also momentarily turned his head to the right, toward the weak-side corner, seemingly scanning for a screener along the baseline or trying to get a peek at what kind of action OKC was triggering in the sideline out-of-bounds situation. Those two turns presented inbounder Derek Fisher — a veteran of countless late-game playoff situations during his five championship runs as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — with an opening to sneak a pass into Durant before the Thunder had even run their set, giving him a chance to attack the basket with James a step out of place and in a recovery position.
Fisher got it in, Durant caught and quickly turned baseline, beat James by a step, got to the edge of the paint, rose and shot for the tie. He missed, James grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Russell Westbrook. James made his free throws on the other end and sealed a huge 100-96 Game 2 road win, giving Miami home-court advantage in these NBA Finals as the scene shifts to South Beach for the next three games.
As soon as Durant's shot drew iron, there was only one question on everybody's lips: "That was a foul, right?" In a word: Yes. Yes, it was.
Over at SB Nation, Mike Prada's got frame-by-frame screencaps that show LeBron, attempting to recover after giving up that passing lane and baseline first step, laying hands on Durant during his drive. James got his left arm under Durant's right on the initial move, then brought it up and across Durant's chest to his left shoulder as he fired. There was a ton of body contact there, but the officials swallowed their whistles.
Former NBA referee Steve Javie, who's discussing controversial officiating calls as part of ESPN's coverage of the finals, suggested that the contact might have been screened from view by Durant's body position on the drive; they might not have seen it, but to the fan at home, it sure looked like it should have led to two shots by Durant. Not that he'd give in to the temptation to gripe about missed calls.
After the game, Durant refused to entertain the notion, according to Yahoo! Sports NBA Editor Johnny Ludden:
"I just missed," Durant said.
Was there contact?
"I really couldn't tell you. I've got to watch the film, I guess."
Are you saying you don't think you got mugged by LeBron on that last play? You don't believe you were fouled?
"I missed the shot, man."
He has to say that; as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, it's part of the superstar code. One of the underpinnings of a system that also allows Durant to get away with a little right-hand push-off to James' midsection as he dribbles left up the baseline, or get the benefit of a blocking call on what looked like a clear charge taken by Shane Battier that could have fouled Durant out of the game with 3:20 left in the fourth and extinguished OKC's chances far earlier than with seven ticks remaining. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
Thunder fans have a legitimate gripe about Durant not getting two free throws there. Ditto for ceding two points on what looked like an illegitimate second-quarter goaltending call on Serge Ibaka. But if they allow themselves to take Durant's two free throws, Ibaka's two points, add them up to get four, see that that's the same as Miami's final margin of victory and decide that OKC got jobbed, then they are insane. The Thunder lost this game because they started out 1 for 12 from the floor, ended the first quarter shooting 5 for 20, gave up 27 first-quarter points and trailed by 12 after 12 minutes.
It's like Fisher told reporters after the game, according to Ludden:
"Officials aren't going to be perfect. As players we aren't perfect," Derek Fisher said. "Whether they make or miss a call, you can't worry about those things. You can't use that as an excuse for not doing the things you're capable of doing as a team.
"Referees don't shoot free throws for you. They don't box out for you. They don't talk on defense for you. They don't make the extra pass for you."
For too long in the early going, the Thunder didn't do those things for themselves, and that's why they're heading to Miami without home-court advantage. Fair or foul's got nothing to do with it.
Is the clip above not working for you? Feel free to check out that final possession elsewhere, thanks to nbainfos.