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Instant Replay in the NBA

The use of instant replay in the NBA has steadily increased over the past several seasons.  Invariably as the direct result of a play that was missed the season before, the rules committee institutes an ever-increasing though very specific and limited scope of instant replay for the following season.  I probably should track down a definitive evolution of the replay rules over the years - but that would be a lot of work.  Suffice it to say that it started with reviewing buzzer beating shots, expanded to reviewing clock stoppages to get the correct amount of time on the clock, expanded to whether a basket was a two pointer or a three pointer, and the latest expansion allows the refs to review out of bounds calls in the final 2 minutes of the game.  I'm sure there were other developments along the way, but those are the ones I can remember, and also the ones that seem to come up periodically.

The arguments against the use of instant replay are pretty straightforward. First of all, it disrupts the flow of the game.  This is why the first two usages were for buzzer-beater and two-pointer/three-pointer decisions - each can be reviewed during a stoppage, having essentially no impact on the flow or the overall length of the game.  The second most common argument against the use of replay is that human referees and bad calls have always been a part of the game.  While this is true, it's also true that everyone would prefer that the calls were mostly correct, so the temptation is great to correct them where possible.


I've touched on the use of replay in the NBA several times over the years.  Three years ago the Clippers trailed the Rockets by three when Cat Mobley was fouled behind the three point line with 2.5 seconds left and the refs ruled it a two - at the time, that call was not one that could be reviewed.  I've also written about the use of replay here and here.

The problem I've always had with the use of instant replay is the omission of common sense from the procedure.  I understand that the league does not wish to open the can of worms that would result if every play throughout the game were reviewable.  So they clearly enumerate only those worms that are allowed out of the can.  But of course there are always other worms that the worms rules committee didn't anticipate, which is why we get a few more worms every season.  Given the amount of authority that the NBA gives the referees to make in-game decisions, I honestly think the rule regarding replay should be that the refs can use it if they deem that the game situation warrants the interruption to the flow of the game - period.  Most charge-block calls are tougher decisions, it seems to me.

Back to the Finals, the problem this time hasn't been about which plays can be reviewed, but the root problem remains the same - an absence of common sense.  Andrew Sharp has an interesting take over at  I can't resist adding my two cents worth.

In the last two games, there have been four replay reviews of out of bounds plays.  Almost everyone agrees that ultimately, despite the review, the refs only got two of those reviews right.  That's not a very good average - 50% when watching in super slow mo from 10 camera angles.  I would actually argue that there is some question about all four of the replay reviews.  Let's look at them one by one.

  • Game 2 - 1:59 - 93-90 BOS - Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett both strain for the rebound, it goes out of bounds, the initial ruling by the officials is that the ball belongs to Boston.  With less than 2 minutes remaining, the referees correctly decide to review the play.  The replay pretty clearly shows Garnett's hand completely in front of Pau's hand, and therefore the last to touch the ball, and therefore it should be the Lakers inbounding.  The refs take their time, review the same replays we see... and rule Boston ball.  It was so unexpected that Mike Breen initially said that they'd given the ball to the Lakers, since he was so sure that's what they were going to do.  So what happened?  As in the NFL, the standard for overturning the original call is something along the lines of irrefutable visual evidence.  That standard of 'irrefutable' is pretty high I suppose.  If you showed the replays to 100 people, I feel confident that all 100 of them would have said that the ball was off Garnett.  But apparently the crew harbored at least some doubt, and refused to overturn the original call.  The other possibility, and I have not heard this discussed, is the old 'hand is part of the ball' thing.  Pau hits Garnett's hand, which hits the ball.  If the hand is part of the ball, does that mean that Pau hit the ball?  It's a stretch, but I can't really fathom this call without a stretch.
  • Game 3 - 1:10 - 84-80 LAL - In a scramble for the ball, Lamar Odom and Rajon Rondo both reach for it and the ball goes out of bounds.  On the court, Dan Crawford ruled it a jump ball and immediately called for a replay review.  This was the clearest of the four replays - the ball clearly was off Odom, and the refs determined as much and awarded the ball to the Celtics.  However, as an aside I mentioned to ClipperMax at the time that Rondo pretty clearly grabbed Odom's arm after Odom had lost the ball.  I wondered aloud about the implications of reviewing the out of bounds play, but ignoring a foul in the review.  Little did I know.
  • Game 3 - 1:29 - 84-80 LAL - On this one, Kobe doubles Garnett and slaps the ball out of his hands and out of bounds.  The initial ruling on the court is that the ball is off the Lakers and Boston will retain possession.  The officials review it, and determine that it actually last touched Garnett's fingertips as it was going out of bounds.  They overturn the call and award the ball to the Lakers.  I think this was technically the correct call - but I still have some issues with it.  My biggest issue is that this type of play happens continually throughout a basketball game, and the ball is pretty much always given to the team that had possession.  If you think about it, if player A is holding the ball, and player B successfully slaps it, and the ball goes out of bounds, which player last touched it?  Isn't that kind of a 50-50 proposition?  Did player B's follow through touch the ball last?  Or did his hand recoil before the force had actually caused the ball to leave player A's hand?  It's an interesting physics problem - but as a practical matter on a basketball court, that ball is ALWAYS considered to be off of Player B.  Think about it.  You can easily think of examples where a ball is slapped, and caroms off the original player's knee or foot and goes out of bounds.  Can you think of a single example in your life of watching basketball where a ball slapped out of a player's hands was considered out of bounds OFF THAT SAME PLAYER'S HANDS?  So in this case, by adding slow motion replays, we've changed the game.  A second issue I have with this one is that, according to Breen, the officials reviewed the call at the behest of Phil Jackson.  Breen maintained during the broadcast (and of course this is just conjecture), that had Boston not called timeout, giving PJ a chance to lobby, the refs would not have reviewed the call.  If this is true, it's not at all in the spirit of the rule.  This isn't the NFL - there's no such thing as a coach's challenge.  The refs are supposed to be the sole arbiters of reviewable situations.  If indeed the refs allowed Jackson to influence their decision, they should not have.  The final minor issue I have with this call is that the evidence was so much less conclusive than on the Gasol-Garnett play from game 2, but it was a different crew, so they had a different definition of 'irrefutable' I guess.
  • Game 3 - 0:39 - 87-82 LAL - Just as at the 1:10 mark, Odom and Rondo went after the ball and it went out of bounds.  This time the refs ruled the ball off Rondo, Lakers possession.  Just as before, they went to the replay.  Once again, the replay clearly showed that the ball was off of Odom.  Unfortunately, the replay also revealed WHY Odom was unable to control the rebound.  Rondo grabbed Odom's right wrist, pulling it away from the ball, causing Lamar to fumble it out of bounds.  An obvious foul.  Rondo never touched the ball, so it certainly wasn't out of bounds off of him.  But his foul was the direct cause of Odom losing the ball.  So the result of the orginal call (Lakers ball out of bounds) is actually pretty close to the result of the proper call (Odom shooting free throws) and is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the law.  Here's where our old friend the Law of unintended consequences comes in.  The refs are allowed to review and correct out of bounds calls, but are expressly forbidden from reviewing and correcting foul calls (one of the worms the NBA wants in the can).  So, by rule, the refs had to award the ball to Boston - a complete miscarriage of justice that was clear to everyone, the refs included. Of course, Bennett Salvatore corrected the miscarriage by calling an offensive foul on Garnett on the ensuing possession, the best make up call in the history of the league (though the NBA doesn't have make up calls, according to David Stern). 

So there you have it.  Four reviews in two NBA Finals games.  Two of them completely wrong.  The other two raise additional issues.  And if replay had not been applied at all, the results would have been at least as fair, if not more fair.  And folks on the east coast could have gotten to bed before midnight last night.

And where is the common sense?  In Game 2, that's Lakers ball.  Forget 'irrefutable' or whatever.  If you know what the correct call is, make it.  Don't worry about what the original call on the court was.  In the NFL, this issue causes the officials to avoid blowing their whistle, which of course affects the game in other ways.  If you're going to bother to stop the game and watch the replay, at least get the call right.  Call it as if you were watchiing it for the first time, regardless of what the original call was. 

When Rondo fouled Odom causing the ball to go out of bounds, if you're reviewing the call, make the correct call.  Put Odom on the line.  Why not?  Is that slope really that slippery?  Surely the footing is at least as good as the one we're on - the one that FORCED the refs into making the worst possible call in that situation last night.  I don't know how you can tell the refs to watch the replay, but then tell them only to look for certain things.  Either let them watch the replay and act on it, or don't let them watch it.  You can't do it halfway.