Once again, a tightly contested game in these 2016 NBA playoffs featured a moment of officiating drama in the final minute, and once again, the Oklahoma City Thunder were involved.
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After a driving layup by Andre Iguodala, the Golden State Warriors trailed the Thunder, 105-102, with just under 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors tried to pressure and harass Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook as he dribbled the ball into the frontcourt, with Golden State guard Klay Thompson riding him toward the sideline in hopes that he would commit a turnover that would give the Warriors an opportunity to tie the game in the closing seconds.
As Westbrook crossed half-court, he planted his right foot and attempted to turn back toward the nearest official to call a timeout. His momentum, however, continued carrying him toward the Warriors bench, as that right pivot foot slid from the edge of the red rectangle around the Oracle Arena logo all the way past the E. CBSSports.com's Zach Harper has a slow-mo look:
Immediately, several observers on the Warriors bench, including head coach Steve Kerr, began to agitate for a traveling call that would have given Golden State possession. But no whistles blew ... well, not until Westbrook was granted the timeout he sought.
Kerr clearly couldn't believe that there wasn't a call on the play:
Steve Kerr can't believe the no-call pic.twitter.com/Rt9Y1Gg82B
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) May 17, 2016
The Warriors fouled on the ensuing inbounds, and Westbrook made one of his two free throws to push OKC's advantage to four with 15 seconds remaining. Warriors superstar and back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry missed a last-ditch 3-point try, and Westbrook was there for the rebound and two more free throws to seal a stunning and impressive 108-102 win. The victory gives the Thunder a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, wrests home-court advantage away from Golden State, and pushes Oklahoma City's postseason winning streak to four after ripping off victories in Games 4, 5 and 6 of Round 2 to vanquish the favored San Antonio Spurs.
Some fans watching the play came away believing the Warriors had been screwed. Others looked at it and wondered why Thompson hadn't been called for a foul for his bump-and-grind defense on Westbrook, which included a late swipe that Kerr himself might have been indicating he wanted whistled to stop the clock. Whichever side of the fence you land on, it seems clear that this was both a violation that went uncalled ... and, while perhaps an egregious version of it, one that often goes uncalled:
Man all season long they don't call pivot foot travels in the NBA but yall want it called in the WCF...
— Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (@ROSGO21) May 17, 2016
And, as was the case in Games 2 and 5 of the Thunder's semifinal series against the Spurs, the missed call didn't cost its victims the game nearly as much as its own actions. The Warriors committed seven turnovers leading to 10 OKC points after halftime, missed six free throws and frequently forced ill-advised (even for Golden State) shots.
The opposition deserves plenty of credit, too. The Thunder got monster second halves from Westbrook (24 points on 13 shots, five rebounds, four assists, three steals, no turnovers after intermission) and center Steven Adams (10 points, five boards, plus-23 in 19 second-half minutes) and held the league's top offense to 36.4 percent shooting in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Curry was 1 for 6 in the fourth quarter, Klay was 0 for 4. Warriors aren't going to win many close games like that.
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 17, 2016
After the game, Kerr refused to put too much of an emphasis on the no-call that left him flabbergasted in the final 20 seconds:
Kerr on Westbrook's travel no-call: “I didn’t talk to the refs about it. I thought he walked but it wasn’t called. That’s the way it goes.”
— Erik Horne (@ErikHorneOK) May 17, 2016
Kerr: "The turnovers in the second half were a bigger deal to me."
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) May 17, 2016
Steve Kerr laments Warriors settling for "quick shots, tough shots" in fourth quarter. "We lost our poise a little bit."
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 17, 2016
Steve Kerr: "Way too many quick shots. Five minutes left in the game and we’re down four and we’re acting like we have 20 seconds left."
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) May 17, 2016
All of that is true. The Thunder stomped the 73-win Warriors out in the second half, and Golden State blew a 14-point third-quarter lead at home, and none of that had anything to do with a missed call on a dragged pivot foot.
And yet, it was a missed call, as NBA Senior Vice President of Replay and Referee Operations Joe Borgia confirmed after the game:
Joe Borgia, Sr VP Replay/Ref operations, just told us Westbrook should have been called for a travel when he dragged foot calling time.
— Matt Winer (@matt_winer) May 17, 2016
— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) May 17, 2016
"The officials, no one could get in a good position to see him drag that pivot foot," Borgia said. "You know, it's an unfortunate miss, but so much going on on the play, and the speed of it, and officiating is about getting angles, and sometimes you just can't get them, and they did not get a great angle on that play."
Last round, it was Spurs fans who found themselves stewing after both watching their favorite team turn in a disappointing performance and knowing they got the short end of the stick on what could have been a pivotal late call. This time, it's Dub Nation's turn to feel sick and sore until Game 2 tips off on Wednesday.
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