The Big Three in the West -
From 2004 to 2007, Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio were the best teams in the best conference. Before Golden State shocked the Mavs in last year's playoffs, no other Western Conference team had won a series against one of those teams since Steve Nash arrived in Phoenix. And entering this season, the big three were widely assumed to still be the class of the conference. But the Mavs and Suns were both sent home in 1-4 series, and San Antonio is down 0-2 after a pair of bad losses to the Hornets. For Western Conference rivals, hoping to see some room at the top, the main hope was that age would catch up with these teams. The Suns and Mavs hastened their own demise by making blockbuster trades to get significantly older. Meanwhile, the Spurs own 'big three' remain great and plenty young, but their supporting cast is ready for social security. Too bad for non-playoff teams like the Clippers, Warriors and Blazers that the Hornets, Lakers and Jazz already appear to have taken over the top three spots.
The Hack-a-Shaq -
Gregg Popovich is a great coach. I'm also beginning to suspect that he's something of a weenie. For one thing, the NBA needs to revisit their 'sideline' interview strategy between quarters if Popovich is going to be so disdainful. I mean, sure, I disdain Craig Sager too, but it's not doing anyone any good to put it on TV. But this whole Hack-a-Shaq (and now Hack-a-Tyson) thing is just wrong.
First of all, look at the numbers. Without getting too detailed, the Spurs have one of the top defenses in the league, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. Given that number, it would only make sense mathematically to foul someone who shoots worse than 51.8% from the line. Isn't Popovich the guy who was righteously indignant at the Pau Gasol trade, that it was hurting the league, that it made a mockery of the rules? And he's going to have Jacque Vaughan fouling Shaq IN THE FIRST QUARTER? For basically no advantage? If the Hack-a-Shaq were worthwhile from a basketball standpoint, I could almost forgive the disrespect to the game and the fans. But the bottom line is, your defense, if it's any good and if it's set, should be getting a stop at least every other possession, so intentionally fouling only pays off if the shooter is significantly under 50%. Sure, if you're behind and you want to lengthen the game, you might foul Shaq (or Ben Wallace or Tyson Chandler or whomever) in the fourth quarter. But fouling intentionally in the first quarter? With the lead? That's bush league. And awful to watch. And not even smart.
Billups' Three -
This has got to be one of the most absurd situations I've ever seen. The NBA's complete disregard for common sense in the rulebook is monumental, from the 'leave the bench' rule to what is and isn't allowed as regards replays. This is a great example.
First of all, I watched the play, and the instant that Stuckey passed up his shot to instead pass the ball to Billups, I said to myself, 'Dumb decision, there's not enough time.' My internal clock, set to 5.1 seconds, knew that Stuckey should have taken the shot. When I glanced at the clock and saw that 4.8 seconds were showing, I knew that something was wrong.
I can almost understand the refs being bound by a rule that needs to be changed and not looking at the replay. But if the spirit of the rule is to not slow the game down with replays, we would seem to have violated that rule with a 10 minute discussion that must have gone something like this:
Steve Javie: Hey Joe, do you think that was 5.1 seconds?
Joe Forte: I dunno. Derrick, were you counting?
Derrick Stafford: Was I counting? Why would I be counting? We have clocks for that!
SJ: Well what did it FEEL like?
JF: Feel this, Javie.
SJ: Well, what are we gonna do? We're not allowed to look at the replay.
DS: We're in Detroit, Chauncey Billups is a great player. All these things say to me, basket counts.
Needless to say they got it wrong. Here's the thing. Clocks malfunction all the time. The ref blows his whistle, they reset the clock to something reasonable and they restart the play. So even accepting that the NBA rulebook short-sightedly precluded a replay, the painfully obvious answer was to take the points off the board, put 5.1 seconds on the clock, and inbound the ball again.
Because of the NBA's tendency to circle the wagons and clam up during controversies, I've seen no decent explanation as to why they couldn't simply have a do over. In their admission that the basket should not have counted , NBA President Joel Litvin said "NBA rules, [do not] allow for a re-play after a clock malfunction is discovered." The rules don't allow for a re-play? What does that even mean? Does it specifically DISALLOW a re-play? Why would it do that? 5.1 seconds... it would have taken 10 seconds to make the decision, 5.1 seconds to re-play it and it would have been an infinitely better decision. Instead, they talked for 10 minutes in order to get it wrong. Besides, refs re-play things all the time. Maybe not after a basket, but when the clock malfunctions, they blow their whistle, they address the clock, and they inbound the ball again. What is that if not a re-play? Oh, and then there was that game in Atlanta where Shaq was disqualified with his sixth foul even though he only had five. You're going to re-play the final seconds of that meaningless game, 3 months later after Shaq has been traded to Phoenix, and you can't be bothered to put 5.1 seconds back on the clock when you KNOW it's the right thing to do? Excellent.
But given that the do over option wasn't available, disallowing the basket was the next most obvious choice. Not just because it ended up being the correct answer. (My internal clock is good, and maybe it's better than Steve Javie's. But 0.6 of a second is small margin of error.) But in the absence of compelling evidence that the basket should have been allowed (which obviously didn't exist), you disallow it. Why? For one thing, the Magic players saw the frozen clock before the officials did - if you watch the replay, they're pointing to the clock before Billups releases the ball. So the malfunction impacted the play. Secondly, Detroit is the home team and is therefore ultimately responsible for the clock (the operator is supposedly neutral). After multiple issues in Atlanta this season, why the NBA would rule to benefit a home team in this situation is unfathomable. There's a pretty clear conflict of interest here, if a clock malfunction so distinctly ends up favoring the home team. Finally, even if you're not specifically allowed to re-run the play, and you can't, you know, count to five and satisfy yourself that the basket should not have counted, you can still re-run the play from a statistical standpoint. Length of the court, 5.1 seconds, end of the quarter. What percentage of those plays result in three points? 5%? Take the points off the board, finish the quarter with the Magic up one, let the teams decide it in the fourth.
So option 1 - get it right. Option 2 - do over. Option 3 - disallow the basket because of several common sense reasons over and above the fact that it is the right call. The officiating crew of course went for the worst possible option. Putting 0.5 seconds on the clock was of course the icing on the ludicrous cake, considering that the shot was in the air for a good 2 seconds.
But here's my favorite irony in this situation. The referees are allowed to review a play if there are zeros showing on the clock. Which of course there would have been had the clock not malfunctioned. Isn't that delicious? "We need to review the play to determine when the clock malfunctioned. Oh wait, we can't because the clock malfunctioned." By this logic, if the clock showed 0.4 prior to a play, but failed to start, they would not be allowed to watch the replay, because the clock would still be showing 0.4.
Where Kafkaesque Happens. Where Joseph Heller Happens.
I feel compelled to point out that throughout the fourth, until there were 10 seconds left in the game, the Pistons never led by more than three points. There's no way of knowing what the actual outcome would have been, but it goes without saying that allowing Billups' three pointer to count had a HUGE impact on this game.
By the way, the dead ball foul Javie called on Dooling was also crap. He blew his whistle when Hamilton fell, not when the contact occurred. There may have been a foul there (or they might simply have gotten their feet tangled), but Javie wasn't convinced there was a foul until Hamilton fell down, which had nothing to do with the play.