The NBA’s Thursday night schedule was so light as to be nonexistent. It featured just two games, the second of which functioned more as a promotion for TNT’s All-Star Weekend coverage than as a typical nationally televised matchup. Nevertheless, that contest between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics now figures to get some attention through the All-Star break. That tends to happen when a game is decided on an immediately controversial foul call.
With just eight seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Celtics up 103-102, the Bulls held the ball with a chance to win on the final shot. The opportunity unsurprisingly went to All-Star Jimmy Butler. He set up on the wing, created space against the defending Marcus Smart, and missed short as time expired. However, Butler earned a foul on the attempt — a rarity itself on a final possession — and went to the line with a chance to put the Bulls ahead.
It initially did not look as if Smart had made much contact. Replays confirmed as much … and also made it unclear if Smart had touched Butler’s elbow at all. Take a look:
Butler made both free throws to put the Bulls up one point, after which the Celtics had a chance to answer with 0.9 seconds on the clock. Al Horford got a not-terrible look from the left corner, but he missed to seal the 104-103 win for Chicago.
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Boston and its fans have good reason to be upset in the wake of this finish. It’s up for debate if Smart touched Butler. If he did, then it stands to reason that the contact affected the outcome of the shot. Beyond the rule book, though, this whistle is wildly out of step with how officials typically call late-game possessions. Attempted game-winners usually require an abundance of contact to draw a foul. Yes, Smart could have affected the result. But the same is true of a crunch-time drive that ends with a miss due to considerable body contact. Consistency of enforcement matters even if the rules say it’s a foul.
That’s not to say the Celtics were faultless for the loss. They led 103-100 after two Isaiah Thomas free throws with 1:30 remaining and never scored again, thanks in large part to two Bulls offensive rebounds on a single possession that kept the Celtics without the ball from the 1:09 to 0:30 marks. The Bulls didn’t score on that possession — Butler turned it over on their third chance — but the Celtics were still kept from getting more than one chance to make it a two-possession game in the final minute.
It’s hard to say Boston blew it, though, because Chicago was obviously very fortunate to win while shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 6-of-25 (24 percent) from deep. It’s fitting that they won on two free throws, because their 22-of-22 showing from the line helped to make up for those scoring struggles.
With no standings-relevant games on the schedule for another week, it’s a safe bet that this controversial win will stay in the news for a bit (at least in Boston). It certainly mattered — in conjunction with the Washington Wizards’ 111-98 win over the Indiana Pacers in Wednesday’s other matchup, the Celtics’ loss narrowed their lead for the East’s No. 2 spot to just two games. With the conference now more open than in recent years, that one-game swing could matter quite a bit this spring.
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