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Instant replay remains problematic in the NBA

In the final minute of overtime in Chicago, two controversial basket interference calls went against the Bulls and allowed the Nuggets to win the 12th in a row. It's just another example of the NBA's crazy replay review system.


The Los Angeles Clippers are in a tight race for the third spot in the Western Conference along with the Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies. If the Nuggets manage to sneak past the Clippers or the Grizzlies by a game, they'll have the referees from last night's win in Chicago to thank for it.

How frequently does a controversial basket interference call figure in the outcome of a game? How about two of them in the final minute of overtime? What are the odds?

That's exactly what happened last night, when official's waved off Joakim Noah's tip in of a Marco Bellineli jump shot just 45 seconds after allowing Kosta Koufos' tip in of a Ty Lawson layup. Noah's tip, with less than two seconds left in the game and the Nuggets up one, would have given Chicago the lead and almost certainly the win. Instead the officiating crew disallowed the basket after a video review preserving Denver's 12th straight win.

The call itself isn't the problem -- it probably was basket interference, though it was very close and a play that is frequently allowed. It was probably too close to tell, even in slow motion replays, whether Noah first made contact while the ball was over the cylinder. (Beware of still photos that show a player touching the ball over the cylinder, as that in and of itself is not illegal -- every slam dunk involves a play contacting the ball over the cylinder. In order for it to be basket interference, the ball has to be over the cylinder when it is first contacted.) But the ball was on it's downward flight and had a chance to hit the rim, which is also illegal, even for an offensive player. I have literally never seen it called -- and countless alley oops are caught around the league where the ball might have a chance of hitting the rim without it being called offensive goaltending -- but strictly speaking it is not legal, and Noah's basket, by the letter of the law, should not have counted.

But whether they got the final call correct is not the issue. The real problem is in the implementation of instant replay reviews and whether the officiating crew followed their own procedures.

The Koufos tip in from seconds before was also basket interference, and should not have counted. In fact, it was an easier, more obvious call than the Noah play, since the ball was coming out of the cylinder not going into it. There's no question that Koufos' touch was illegal since replays show that Lawson's shot never completely cleared the cylinder and that Koufos touched it. That one's a no brainer.

But the Koufos tip was ruled a basket on the floor, and in the NBA's crazy patchwork of plays reviewable with replay, basket interference can only be reviewed if it was called, not if it was NOT called.

allowing a replay review when it is called on the floor while not allowing the review in the same situation when it is not called is completely arbitrary

Which raises the real controversy in all of this -- did the officials call basket interference on Noah's tip or did they not? Watching the replay, there is nothing that indicates that any one of the three officials originally waved off the basket. There is no whistle, there are no arm movements, Chicago is celebrating, the points are put on the scoreboard. Denver calls a 20 second timeout, which allows the crew a few seconds to think, and they decide they want to go to the monitors.

Now -- did they see a replay before ruling it basket interference on the floor? It's essentially impossible to know, but if they did, it would clearly have violated the league's replay policy. Did they actively make a call that the basket was good? It's difficult to say. Scorekeepers are competent enough to know when the ball goes through the hoop, they don't look to referees to signal every basket, and I would hazard a guess that the majority of made baskets are not "called" by the officiating crew in any way. Three pointers are noted as being from beyond the arc, but when a player makes a layup, does any referee to anything do indicate "Yes, that's two points"? Not that I know of.

What they do is signal when a ball that goes through the hoop is NOT a basket. They blow their whistle, they wave their arms, they yell "No basket." None of those things happened on Noah's tip. Does that mean that the ruling on the floor was that the basket was good? I honestly don't know. How long does the crew have to decide on a call? What's the statute of limitations on the initial call?

One way or the other, Denver caught a huge break. Two basket interference plays in the final minute of an overtime game that ended in a one point Nuggets victory, and one of the baskets counts and the other doesn't.

What this game really does is point out the absurdity of the way the NBA has implemented instant replay. You can review a play that was called basket interference but not one that was not called basket interference. Here's a question that I haven't heard anyone ask yet. Why? Is there any logical reason that one should be reviewable and the other not? If the goal is to address correctable errors, and the decision is that replay can help officiating crews make definitive determinations in the case of basket interference, why should it matter what the initial call was? Is it any less egregious a miscarriage of justice if the initial call was no violation? Obviously not, at least not to Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls.

When a referee is unsure whether a jump shooter has his toe on the three point arc he makes a call one way or the other and then signals to the scorer's table that he wants to review the play at the next stoppage. Not every play is reviewable -- if you're not sure whether a player stepped out of bounds or not, you either have to call it and interrupt play or allow play to continue. You can't then review it later and rewind everything that happened. But the result of a tip in/basket interference play is the same either way -- ball out of bounds for the other team. There's no reason at all -- none -- that the crew in Chicago last night could not have reviewed Koufos' tip after the fact and taken the points off the board, just as they did on Noah's basket.

At the end of the day, allowing a replay review of a basket interference play when it is called on the floor while not allowing the review in the same situation when it is not called is completely arbitrary. The fact that the crew in Chicago was far from clear in what they actually called on the Noah play only exacerbates the problem. Denver called an immediate timeout after Noah's tip and lobbied hard for the interference call. It sure seems like they managed to affect the decision.

In the grand tradition of closing the barn door after the cow is already out, I guarantee that the NBA will change this rule and that all basket interference plays, called or not, will be reviewable by replay next season.

And the Denver-Chicago game was not the only one with a debatable replay in the final seconds. In the final seconds of the Miami's 23rd straight win in Boston, Shane Battier blocked Jeff Green's driving layup and the ball went out of bounds. The crew ruled Boston ball and then decided to review it.

I've written about this situation on several occasions in the past. On the play in question, Battier makes a clean block, and the block is what causes the ball to go out of bounds. Plays like this happen throughout basketball games, and the ball is always given to the offense. Unless the ball takes an obvious redirect, off the offensive players knee or body, the ball is awarded to the offense, no turnover. That is not to say that the defensive player has definitely touched the ball last. There are clearly times when the defender hits the ball, creating the impetus for it to go out of bounds, but the ball is last in contact with the offensive player.

Which is exactly what happened last night. With the benefit of HD replays, I thought it was fairly obvious that the ball last touched Green, so that by the letter of the law it should have been Miami ball out of bounds. I don't happen to like that -- I think the spirit of the law, or at the very least the way it has been called for 40 years and for at least 46 minutes of every 48 minute game, makes that call differently, and I think it's the more fair call.

The officiating crew in Boston surprised me and left the ball with Boston. I'm not sure how they looked at that replay and applied the guidelines they've been given as I understand them and came up with that call, but that's what happened. It was a very big call at the time and could easily have changed the outcome of the game, but Boston failed to score on the extra possession and Miami held on for the win.

Denver's winning streak continued also -- with a little help from the NBA's crazy replay rules.