OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant said he missed. He said nothing about LeBron James hooking him underneath his right arm. Or that the officials neglected to call a foul. Or, if they had, that Durant very well could have still been on the court trying to lead his Oklahoma City Thunder past the Miami Heat in overtime instead of sitting on a stage fielding questions from reporters.
"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."
Durant knew he was fouled. His reaction on the court after the shot caromed off the rim and into LeBron's arms said enough. He'd nearly pulled off one of the great NBA Finals comebacks of all time, scoring 26 points in the second half. Given the ball and a chance to tie with less than 10 seconds left, he spun on the baseline and lofted a shot from seven feet that was about six inches short. James made the mistake of looking away from Durant, then he tried to slow him by pinning his arm underneath Durant's right shoulder.
"I just tried to keep a body on him and make him take a tough one," James said.
It should have been a foul, only the whistle never came. The Thunder lost 100-96 and now head to Miami with the Finals squared after two games. And as frustrated as Durant was with that last play, he also knew something else: This is what the Finals are about. This is basketball in the NBA playoffs.
The officials, for right or wrong, usually swallow their whistles on end-of-game possessions and let the players settle the outcome themselves. Contact? Of course. Ask Bryon Russell about contact. Michael Jordan won his sixth and final championship on a push-off that wasn't called. NBA officiating is forever subjective. In this league, a foul isn't always a foul.
This wasn't the only controversial call to against the Thunder. Midway through the second quarter, Durant blocked a shot by Chris Bosh that glanced off the backboard. Serge Ibaka then blocked the ball on the way down, but was called for goaltending.
Ibaka, like Durant and Thunder coach Scott Brooks, refused to publicly complain.
"We can't control what the referees are doing," Ibaka said. "That's the referee's job. Our job is to play basketball. The referee's is to see what happened.
"The referee says basket and we can't change [that]."
A day earlier, NBA commissioner David Stern was asked about the league's officiating. "The state of the referees," he said, "is spectacular for human beings."
In truth, the league's officiating is adequate on most nights and bad on at least as many as it's good. The league has lost a handful of its top officials to retirement or injury, and the influx of younger refs hasn't helped the overall consistency of the officiating. Stern promised more transparency in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal, but all that's resulted in is the league issuing press releases confirming blown calls – a practice that's helped neither the officials nor the teams.
What everyone agrees upon: The sport is the toughest to officiate given the speed at which it's played and the athleticism of its athletes. That's why Stern continues to look at ways to increase the use of instant replay, particularly as it's applied to the incessant block-charge debates and the outlaw of flopping – or "trickery, deceit," as the commissioner likes to call it. Listen to Heat fans and Durant shouldn't have even been on the floor for that last shot; Shane Battier was called for a blocking foul against Durant with 3:20 left that, had it been whistled a charge, would have given Durant his sixth foul.
In many ways, the league has accepted the controversy over its officiating as another line item in the cost of doing business. Bad calls are going to happen. They always do and they're always going to draw criticism. "That's our lot," Stern said, "and that's good, because you're talking about us, you're writing about us."
The Thunder likely don't see the humor. They were upset, but they also kept their frustration private. It doesn't matter, they said. We're moving on. They know they didn't lose because of one non-call. They lost because they trailed 18-2 after seven minutes, because, for the third straight game at home, they dug themselves a huge, early hole.
"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."
The Thunder now head to Miami with the pressure upon them, with these Finals suddenly looking like a long, difficult series. Durant nearly pulled off the impossible. He rose up for that last shot, took the hit from LeBron and looked for a whistle that would never come. He was fouled, but in the NBA, in the Finals, it's never that simple.
All that matters: He missed.
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