AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Referees Steve Javie, Joe Forte and Derrick Stafford stood in a small circle off to the side of the key and, amid the dancing girls, stadium rock and complaints from the Orlando Magic bench, tried to figure out the impossible – just how long is a tenth of a second?
The game clock at the end of the third quarter of Game 2 of the Orlando-Detroit series had inexplicably stopped with 4.8 seconds left.
None of the officials noticed it Monday night. So while the quarter's final 4.8 seconds weren't running, the Pistons' Chauncey Billups dribbled up the court, passed the ball, got it back and then drained a three-pointer to give Detroit a 78-76 lead.
Could he do all that in 4.8 seconds? Javie, Forte and Stafford kept discussing it. They took turns talking. They took turns listening. They took turns waving their hands, pointing their fingers and crossing their arms.
What they didn't do was go over to the scorer's table, have TNT cue the television replay and run a stop watch – which would have shown the play took longer than 5 seconds – to get it correct.
Instead they guesstimated because NBA rules prohibited them from consulting anything from the television to a sundial.
"They estimated how much time and they estimated 4.6 seconds," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said.
"It's almost funny," said Van Gundy, who saw no humor in the fact that those critical three points factored greatly in the Pistons' tight, back-and-forth 100-93 victory. Or that Detroit now owns a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Van Gundy broke into a little acting, playing the roles of two of the refs.
"How long did that play take?”
"I don't know, 4.3? 4.6?”
Maybe it was funny.
"(People would say) 'four or five seconds,' right?" Van Gundy said, wondering if perhaps he was the only one whose internal clock didn't have a decimal point.
NBA commissioner David Stern will go to the wall to defend his referees' abilities and integrity, but does he really think they can judge a tenth of a second in the middle of madcap action?
The league is so sensitive to the idea of the stereotypically biased hometown clock operator that during the playoffs it flies in neutral officials (in this case Minnesota) to run the thing. The NBA thinks of everything. But it never thought to equip its refs with an old-school stopwatch, new-fangled timing device or the ability to consult a television replay when the shot or game clock inevitably breaks?
"Our instant replay rule does not account for this action," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said via email Monday night. "There was not a trigger to permit use of the (television) screen to view clock."
League officials might want to write a "trigger" into the rules by Tuesday morning. The NBA was founded in 1946; this is the first time something like this happened?
"They have no timing device to do it," Van Gundy said. "Steve (Javie) was frustrated by not having it. He said with the technology they have, they should be able to go over and look at that. … They were put in a very tough situation on that call."
Javie refused comment to a pool reporter.
Javie "was frustrated by that," Van Gundy said. "Probably not quite as much as us."
The Magic weren't blaming the loss on the clock. Not after 19 turnovers, a clueless, forced, critical-possession missed jumper by Hedo Turkoglu and a habit of digging themselves big first-half holes.
"We can't blame that for costing us the game," said Dwight Howard, who exploded for 22 points and 18 rebounds. "We can't have as many turnovers as we did tonight."
NBA fans, however, will certainly find some conspiracy in the result. If not the clock, then a late no-call on Rashard Lewis and a tough, dead-ball foul call on Keyon Dooling for bumping Richard Hamilton with 11.7 seconds left that pretty much iced the victory for Detroit.
"Just a very, very, very tough loss," Van Gundy said.
The Association is sensitive to the annual cries of a fix and this one would be particularly lame. The NBA wants Detroit for TV ratings?
As ridiculous as the complaints will be, it's just these howls of protest, just this never-ending rerun of the lowlight (not the highlight) of the game that drives Stern crazy and makes him try to prepare for every last calamity.
But apparently, and rather amazingly, no one thought of this simple one.
4.3? 4.6? 5.2?
"They estimated 4.6 seconds," Van Gundy said. "What can you do?"
How about fix the rule?