In the last month of the NBA season, various teams with no playoff hopes whatsoever start to wonder why exactly they're trying to win games. It's often more useful for teams to focus on letting young players develop or to allow older players to sit out games to ensure they don't add to the damage already inflicted upon their bodies. These plans usually lead to more losses, which also happens to help teams improve their position in the draft. We typically call this "tanking," but that might might exaggerate the teams' tolerance for losing. Perhaps it's better to say they're trying to maximize the value of essentially meaningless games.
I mention all this because I seriously doubt that Phoenix Suns center Jermaine O'Neal was trying to lose his team's road game against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night. However, it's hard to come up with any kind of logical explanation for what he did in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
With nine seconds on the clock and the score tied at 98-98, the Rockets allowed All-Star guard James Harden to create a shot in isolation on P.J. Tucker. He settled for a long 3-pointer that ricocheted high off the back rim, as those shots often do. As the players waited for the ball to drop, the horn sounded, and it looked to everyone as if the game would go to overtime.
Except it didn't, because O'Neal reached through the rim to touch the ball, resulting in a goaltending call. The Rockets got three points to win 101-98 and clinched their first playoff berth since the 2008-09 season.
So, what exactly was O'Neal thinking? From Paul Coro for azcentral.com:
“Jermaine O’Neal touched it while it was in the cylinder,” official David Jones said. “The ball was on the rim and in the cylinder. He doesn’t go up through the net.”
O’Neal said he thought the ball had come off the rim and he was trying to prevent a Rockets tip-in. [Suns coach Lindsey] Hunter said he will need to re-examine the rule after the explanation he received.
“But there were a lot of other calls that were quite questionable leading up to that,” O’Neal said. “So I guess you put that with the rest of them. Especially in the fourth (quarter), there were some calls that I’m not quite sure about.”
It seems as if O'Neal just made a mistake, but the video of the play sure makes it seem as if he interfered in violation of goaltending rules. Whatever the case, it's the kind of play that no one expects from a 17-year veteran, because players with that much experience typically don't run the risk of interfering with the ball after the buzzer has sounded. Even if the call was wrong — which, again, appears not to be the case — it never should have been an issue.
It's a bizarre play, although not necessarily a bad result for Phoenix. At 23-55, they're now 1 1/2 games ahead of (behind of?) the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third-worst record in the NBA and the the-third best chance at nabbing the draft's top pick via the lottery. That's a meaningful loss, then, especially considering the Cavs blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to lose to the Indiana Pacers. The Suns had to find a way to keep pace, and O'Neal failed to come through in the clutch to help the cause.
It was a truly special moment in late-season losing. May we never forget it.