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Clippers-Thunder Game 5: The NBA Playoffs as Theater of the Absurd

Doc Rivers said the Clippers were robbed, and he's right. The out of bounds call was demonstrably incorrect, and several other calls were dubious. And the explanations offered so far are insultingly insufficient.

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories. I have one basic problem with them -- they require a level of sophistication from the perpetrators that I don't believe they possess. In other words, I've never believed that the NBA and its referees could intentionally and successfully manipulate outcomes of games without people finding out. If the league has been telling officiating crews for years which team they want to win a game or a series, then members of those crews would have leaked that information by now. Members with more credibility than Tim Donaghy, that is. Basically, I don't think the NBA and officiating crews make preferential calls, not because they're not evil enough, but because they're not smart enough.

So I'm at something of a loss to explain what happened in this game.

I'm not sure I'm going to be coherent here; there's very little chance this is going to flow well. But there are a number of things I need to say.

(1) I have never seen Doc Rivers so angry. Doc Rivers is a measured guy. He really doesn't complain about the officiating. On two separate occasions this season the NBA admitted after the fact that they made bad calls that may have cost the Clippers games (one of them a playoff game) and Doc wasn't upset. He said "We shouldn't have been in that situation to begin with." Basically, we know there were times this season when the Clippers were robbed -- and Doc never said we were robbed. Tonight, he said "We were robbed." And he's right of course.

(2) Stu Jackson has become a bad joke, and Adam Silver probably needs to do something about it. After the game via twitter Jackson defended the refs with a specific section of the NBA rule book:

To say that this rule justifies the call is a MASSIVE misinterpretation. This rule is an obvious and logical extension of the rule that states that "the hand is part of the ball" (a rule that is itself incredibly misunderstood). So sure, if player A hits player B in the hand, never touching the ball, and the ball goes DIRECTLY out of bounds as a result, then player B's team would retain possession. But you don't ignore everything that occurs from the contact until the ball goes out of bounds. By Jackson's interpretation, if player A hit player B's hand after which the ball clearly, indisputably caromed off player B's knee before going out of bounds, player B's team would retain possession because the sequence started with player A hitting player B's hand and dislodging the ball. That is clearly not what the rule states, and if Jackson (or the TNT crew for that matter) doesn't understand that then he's a moron. This explanation -- which was NOT the one provided by crew chief Tony Brothers, by the way -- is a complete non-starter. It's not worthy of serious consideration. It does not apply to this play, and anyone who doesn't realize that is delusional or stupid. Next.

(3) So how about that explanation provided by Brothers?

When the ball goes out of bounds, the ball was awarded to Oklahoma City. We go review the play. We saw two replays. The two replays we saw were from the overhead camera showing down, and the one from from under the basket showing the same angle but from a different view. And from those two replays it was inconclusive as to who the ball went out of bounds off of bounds off of. When it's inconclusive, we have to go with the call that was on the floor.

I'm more than a little insulted by this statement. First of all, the vast majority of the statement doesn't tell anyone anything they didn't already know. We know the initial call was OKC ball. We know you reviewed it FSM's sake. We know that when the replay is inconclusive the original call stands. We know all that.

I'm going to ignore for a moment the logical impossibility that the overhead view and the under the basket view are from the same angle -- they're not. But as many have pointed out, if there are more angles available (which there are, some of which were being shown in the arena), why in the name of Ron Garretson would the officiating crew not see them all? Particularly if the views they've see have been deemed inconclusive? How does that work? Brothers: "Can't tell from that one; can't tell from that one either." Video coordinator: "We've got more, do you want to see them?" Brothers: "Nope, we've seen enough." Or does this open a whole new can of worms, a different opportunity for potential malfeasance? Who exactly provides video replays for the officiating crew? It sure as fuck better not be an employee of the Oklahoma City Thunder, if you catch my drift. I'm reminded of the scene in The Stunt Man where Peter O'Toole shows footage of a car accident to the police and later says to Steve Railsback "Would you like to see the one where I'm driving the car?" If the officiating crew is NOT seeing all the replays that are available then we're all just in a Sartre play: this is theatre of the absurd. If some replays are shown and some are not, it allows for the obvious possibility of an agenda in the choices, and whoever is making those choices had better not have any conflict of interest. This question absolutely needs to be explored further.

(3) By the way, each and every angle available shows pretty clearly that the ball was not off Matt Barnes but was off Reggie Jackson. A fundamental understanding of physics is pretty much all you need in order to make the correct call. And I'm not talking about e=mc(2) or even r*t=d. I mean, you've lived, you've observed the way things work, you know that objects fall down because of gravity, that sort of thing. You don't have to actually see the ball last in contact with Jackson's hand to know that Barnes slapped in one direction and the ball went in the other direction. So how do we know it wasn't off Barnes? Because we know how the universe works! The motion that Barnes made would not cause the ball to go out of bounds over the baseline.

(4) I want to defend the Clippers a bit from the whole "they should never have allowed it to get to that point in the first place" argument. Did the Clippers get a tad too complacent and milk the clock too much, resulting in some poor shots? Maybe. But guess what? IT FUCKING WORKED! They don't lose that game if the refs do their jobs correctly. Let's bear in mind that the illegal screen call on DeAndre Jordan moments before was a part of OKC's comeback -- that screen was no more or less illegal than every high screen set in every NBA game. Actually, that's not true -- it was relatively clean as those screens go. That call, in that situation, is conspiracy theory fodder enough. The Clippers didn't give that game away by any means, though they did miss some shots -- Chris Paul missed two makeable 18 footers, Jamal Crawford missed a layup. Even with the misses, they burned enough clock that they could go to the line with 15 seconds remaining to ice the game. But that didn't happen. In those final 15 seconds, Paul is hit much more distinctly and much harder both on the Russell Westbrook steal and on the Reggie Jackson reach than Paul hit Westbrook. Four calls in 15 seconds had to all go for the Thunder, against the Clippers, for OKC to win that game. The officials have to swallow their whistles twice when the Clippers have the ball, they have to make a demonstrably incorrect call on the out of bounds play, and they have to call a touch foul (if it was even a touch) on Westbrook's three pointer. The Clippers did enough to win -- and the only reason they did not, as Doc Rivers said, is that they were robbed. This was not a meltdown.

(5) So what's the explanation? Has the NBA instructed its officials that this is the year of the Thunder? Did Kevin Durant put Tony Brothers and company in a tough spot by having such a bad game? Or did Brothers decide this one time that he wanted to rule by the spirt of the law and make up for the fact that maybe Barnes had fouled Jackson by giving Oklahoma City the ball? Don't get me started on that possibility. I've been railing against this problem with the replay rule since long before it worked against the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs this season. The idea that it would be interpreted in one manner, disadvantageous to the Clippers, in that series and in the opposite manner -- again disadvantageous to the Clippers -- in this series is too painful to contemplate. Or was this just one demonstrably incorrect call and several other highly questionable ones that all went against the Clippers because of bad luck and non-malicious incompetence?

(6) Not to harp on all this too much, but let's not forget the "Clear path" ruling at the end of the first quarter. I've watched the NBA intently since long before the inception of the "Clear path" rule, which admittedly is one of the least clearly defined and least consistently applied rules in the league. I have NEVER seen that interpretation. How can you apply the clear path rule to one player being fouled based on the positioning of a different player? Surely the rule refers to the PLAYER BEING FOULED HAVING A CLEAR PATH? Do we have to review the positioning of all four other offensive players every time a foul is committed, to ensure that none of them has a clear path to the basket? Does Darren Collison have to know the position of all the other players in order to know whether he might be guilty of a clear path foul? Am I biased? Sure. But Steve Kerr and Marv Albert also said that they've never seen it interpreted that way, so I feel pretty safe here. How is it possible that twice in the same game the officials went to the monitor and returned with a call that shocked the announcing crew? It's hard to figure.


There's a reason that twitter exploded over these calls and that everyone -- not just Clipper fans -- is incensed by the events of the final 15 seconds of Game 5. This is certainly the most obviously botched officiating job in the playoffs since Lakers-Kings in 2002. And in this case, the officials really have nowhere to hide. Everyone knows they blew it.

The series isn't over -- but as Rivers said, that mistake may have decided it. I assume we haven't heard the final explanation from the league as of yet (since neither of the ones provided so far actually make any sense).  So stay tuned for more developments.