Regular readers of Clips Nation know that I frequently refer to the law of unintended consequences, particularly as it relates to NBA officiating and the use of replay. Now, let me be clear -- I am a fan of the use of replay. Things move very quickly in the NBA, calls are missed, I'd rather get them right, so the baggage that comes with the use of replay is on the whole worth it, at least to me. In fact, one of my biggest peeves regarding replay is the rigid list of items that are reviewable; a situation that requires game officials to ignore an obvious foul while watching a replay to determine who knocked a ball out of bounds, just as a for instance.
And I am continually amazed, after so many years of watching NBA basketball, when a new situation arises.
During Game 6 last night in Miami something happened that I had not ever seen before. When Ray Allen hit that corner three at the end of regulation to tie the game there were about five seconds left. Given the matchups on the court at the time, the Spurs clearly preferred to push the ball in transition, in particular hoping to get Tony Parker away from LeBron James. That's what had worked as the Spurs scored eight in a row to take the lead, and that's what they wanted to do in those final five seconds. As the ball comes out of the net, the Spurs are looking to inbound to Parker to give him a chance to win the game in transition.
But referee Mike Callahan had a different plan. Allen's three, coming on a step back after an offensive rebound, was a bang-bang play, and Callahan wasn't completely certain he'd gotten his feet behind the arc. Under normal circumstances when the referees want to review the two-pointer/three-pointer question (one of the allowable replay reviews under league rules) they signal to the scorer's table for the review and wait for the next time out to conduct the review. But with five seconds remaining, Callahan felt that the score had to be correct -- and he stopped the game to conduct an immediate review.
Gregg Popovich was livid -- he knew the Spurs had a much better chance of winning the game in the final five seconds against a Miami defense in transition than against a set defense that had bottled up the Spurs for most of the fourth quarter. And Pop may have a point -- according to the NBA's Media Central website:
On a made basket Replay Review will be conducted according to the following: In the 4th period after third timeout and all overtime periods: review at next clock stoppage.
Now, technically, a made basket in the final two minutes is a clock stoppage -- the clock does stop -- but it's not like any other clock stoppage. You can't make a substitution, the referee doesn't have to handle the ball before it's inbounded -- that ball is live, despite the fact that the clock is stopped. Without asking the rules committee a direct question, it's difficult to know the exact intent of this wording. "Clock stoppage" makes it sound like the game has stopped -- but after a made basket, the game hasn't really stopped. It's a bit grey to me.
Furthermore, the whole situation is a bit of a Kobyashi Maru -- a no win scenario. If you stop the clock to review the play, you are certain to have the scoreboard correct, but the attacking team, in this case the Spurs, has been unfairly penalized with a stoppage in play. If you do not stop the clock to review the play, and then later reverse the play upon review, the Heat would be livid -- they would have played the final five seconds thinking the score was tied and the game was headed to overtime, when in fact they were down a point and they needed to commit a foul to prolong the game.
In the end, Callahan did the best thing he could have, and he technically did what the rulebook says as well. Of the available options, stopping the game and getting the score correct was the least bad. It definitely hurt the Spurs -- Parker's final shot against a set Heat defense was an airball -- and as it happens, the ruling on Allen's three was ruled correct, so they could have allowed play to continue. But the nightmare scenario there would have been for the scoreboard to have been wrong as the final buzzer sounded and the Spurs to be crowned the champs "upon further review" -- can you imagine that scene in Miami?
By the way, the referees did make one clear error on that play. When play resumed, Tim Duncan had checked back into the game. As I pointed out above, you are not allowed to make a substitution after a made basket, and the referee review at that point does not change that. The Spurs didn't score so it had no impact, but Duncan's was technically on the court illegally for those final five seconds, a fact first pointed out by Kelly Dwyer.
Stopping the game with five seconds left wasn't the last time the refs hurt the Spurs in Game 6 -- Allen clearly fouled Manu Ginobili in the final seconds of overtime -- but it was the most interesting.