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NBA Playoffs Clippers-Thunder: It could have been a very different series

In two games, in two sequences each lasting less than a minute, things went very differently for two basketball teams. One of those teams is playing in the Conference Finals, the other will be back next season.

Stephen Dunn

In an alternate universe somewhere, Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder went very differently. In Game 5, with the home town Thunder trailing by seven points and just 49 seconds remaining in the game, OKC needed to hit every shot and get every break in order to win the game -- and that's exactly what happened. Up to and including a replay review in which the referees made a demonstrably incorrect decision (and then lied about why after the game) the Thunder got every call they needed and stole the crucial Game 5 victory that decides seven game series in about 85 percent of cases.

Two nights later, another home team trailed by seven points in the fourth quarter. And another brief segment of basketball, this time about 57 seconds, helped decide the game.

It is the nature of sports to complain about the officiating. In the NBA, you may subscribe to any one of a number of different schools of thought concerning bad officiating:

(1) Bad officiating isn't a problem at all. Fans who believe otherwise are too emotionally attached to the proceedings and see what they want to see. NBA officials in fact do an incredible job of fairly adjudicating a fast paced and physical game in a completely bias-free manner with minimal mistakes, which in the end balance out and are simply part of the fabric of sport at any rate. Most of the people who believe this live in or near Secausus New Jersey and receive their paychecks from an Association that will remain nameless.

(2) Bad officiating happens because referees are human and make mistakes. Everyone accepts this at some level, though not everyone agrees as to whether it is the only problem, nor exactly how it is manifested. It's worth breaking it down further.

(2)(a) As humans, referees are influenced by things like the home crowd, and whether consciously or unconsciously, they tend to favor the home team with their whistles. The book Scorecasting attributes the vast majority of the home court advantage across all sports to the officiating, backed up with some very interesting data on the subject.

(2)(b) Because referees are human and make mistakes, they also realize at times when mistakes are made, and try to balance out the mistake with subsequent decisions. The term "makeup call" is pretty universally known and the concept is widely accepted. It stands to reason that we wouldn't know what people were talking about when they said "that's a make up call" if they didn't exist.

(2)(c) Referees are human and shit happens. The mistakes that are made are completely random with few or no external factors influencing them.

(3) Bad officiating happens because referees have agendas and they use their influence to advance those agendas.

If you believe in the influence of the home crowd or in the tendency of NBA referees to want to make up for earlier injustice, Game 6 at STAPLES Center is not going to be exhibit A.

Down seven in a game they had led for three quarters, the Clippers had lost all of the momentum and badly needed to regain it in order to mount a comeback. They don't call the Clippers Lob City for nothing and a big dunk would be just what the Doc ordered for cutting into the lead and getting the home crowd behind them. When Chris Paul drove to the basket and dished the ball to a wide open DeAndre Jordan who threw down a monster alsm with 3:36 on the clock it felt like the start of something -- until the whistle sounded and the play was waved off for an offensive foul on Paul. At the time I called it the worst call I've ever seen -- after watching several replays, I now believe I know what Monte McCutcheon believes he saw; it's still a bad call, but more on that later.

Wave off the basket, the Clippers are still down seven. They get a steal leading to a transition opportunity, another tailor-made opportunity to build momentum on their comeback. As Blake Griffin, the best ball handling power forward in the league and one of the best finishers, heads down court, Kevin Durant backpedals in front of him -- there's contact, Griffin shoots and scores, there's a whistle -- offensive foul on Griffin (his fifth) and for the second time in less than 30 seconds two points is taken off the board on the home team's side of the ledger.

The Clippers again get the defensive stop they need and run a very nice set to get an open three pointer for J.J. Redick, their best three point shooter. He misses and although Jordan has inside position, Durant comes over him from behind to secure the rebound.

In that alternate reality of which I spoke, Jordan's dunk counts and there's no foul on Paul, Griffin's basket counts and a blocking foul is called on Durant, for a three point play and Redick's three goes in. The Clippers lead by one at 94-93 with 2:40 remaining and they have all the momentum. That counterfactual sequence resulted in eight points in 57 seconds, similar to the eight points in 49 seconds the Thunder needed to win Game 5.

I wrote on Tuesday night that the Thunder needed four calls in the final 14 seconds to go their way in order to win that game -- all four did. One of those four was reviewed by the crew and the result of that review will remain one of the black spots on the credibility of the league for the foreseeable future -- Doc Rivers does not scream "We were robbed" for no reason.

The Clippers needed two calls to go their way in this sequence (three would have been nice in the reality of J.J.'s miss and Durant's 'over the back' rebound). The charge/block call is rightly known as the toughest in basketball, and I believe that the officials got the Griffin/Durant call right -- but it's very close.  Durant is back pedaling as Griffin is approaching. The way the call is usually made, if Durant is not set before Griffin elevates, then the foul is on Durant. I've rewatched the play many times -- and it's difficult to say whether Durant is set or not. (I still like the call, because Durant is not moving left or right and he takes the contact square in the chest -- even if he's moving slightly backward, that should be an offensive foul since Griffin is initiating the contact, though the fact is that most of the time it is not called that way in the NBA.)

The Collison/Paul call is a very different story. Let's start by saying that Ben Bolch's column in Friday's LA Times is uninformed and verging on irresponsible. Bolch writes:

With the crowd buzzing and the Clippers in the midst of one more crazy comeback, Paul drove toward the basket and passed to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk that appeared to shave the Clippers' deficit to five points.

The crowd went crazy.

The whistle blew.

The basket didn't count.

Paul had picked up a foul for hitting Collison in the midsection with a forearm, and you could almost feel the old negativity bubbling up that Paul isn't a big-game player, that the deeper his team goes into the playoffs, the more he falters.

What Bolch describes is not a foul. Paul did not hit Collison in the midsection with a forearm -- Collison jumped into Paul who put his arm up to protect himself. If the referee called a foul based on this description of the play, it was indeed a terrible call, and to question Paul's ability to win big games based on a referee's bad call is ludicrous and yes, irresponsible.

I said before that I believe I know what McCutcheon saw, and it was not Paul's right arm in Collison's midsection; it was Paul's left arm on Collison's right leg. After Paul lays the ball off to Jordan, his left arm is behind Collison, which is logical as that is the direction of the pass. As Paul passes through, his trailing left arm hits Collison's leg. Collison is clearly jumping forward into Paul and the six foot Paul is clearly protecting himself from having a 260 pound power forward land on him. What happens next is at least open to interpretation -- and either way, McCutcheon got the call wrong.



If the contact between Paul and Collison is incidental, then it's no call. I believe that McCutcheon thinks Paul intentionally pulled Collison's right leg out from under him, causing the OKC player's tough fall. And you know what? He may be right. Chris Paul is ultra competitive and at times his desire to win outstrips his common sense.

HOWEVER if this is indeed McCutcheon's interpretation of the play -- that Chris Paul intentionally pulled the legs out from under an elevated defender -- then a common offensive foul remains the incorrect call. Paul should have been ejected from the game if that's what McCutcheon believed he saw because that is a incredibly dirty and dangerous play. It's at least a flagrant foul, which would then have triggered a video review.

We may never know what McCutcheon thinks he saw on that play. We do know, however, at least in the case of this single game, that the officiating crew did NOT make the calls that benefited the home team at a crucial juncture and did NOT make the calls that might have atoned for injustices done to the Clippers two nights earlier. The easy and obvious call in the Paul/Collison situation is incidental contact -- that's what announcers Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy thought it was, and frankly that's what two of three officials on the court thought it was. I hesitate to give a percentage but it would be big -- let's say between 95 and 99 percent of the time -- when that's a no call. Clearly Monte McCutcheon felt compelled by neither the crowd nor the situation to try to help the Clppers in that instance, because the easiest thing, the obvious thing, would have been to play on.

As for the Durant/Griffin situation, let's say that's a 50/50 call. I'm on record saying that the officials got it right -- but no one outside of Oklahoma City would have batted an eye if the call had gone the other way and Griffin had been given a free throw to complete the three point play. (More to the point, they would not have batted an eye, but they might well have said "That's a tough call for OKC, but the Clippers deserve to get a few breaks after what happened in Game 5.")

After Game 5 I facetiously suggested that Kevin Durant's poor performance had made it difficult for the referees to help the Thunder win, so they had to go above and beyond. Likewise on Thursday, the Clippers weren't doing their part -- but the officials had back-to-back opportunities to help them even the series and force a ratings-friendly Game 7 and they declined to take advantage (in one case going far out their way).

I refuse to blame the Game 5 loss on a Clippers' collapse -- yes, they made some mistakes, but they did enough to win the game and the referees clearly changed the outcome. To say "The Clippers still would have won had they done x" does not alter the fact that the Clippers still would have won had the referees done their jobs correctly. The dual concepts that the Clippers could have done more and that the referees screwed up are not mutually exclusive, and it is in no way logical to suggest that a team must be perfect before one can justify any gripes against the officiating.

Game 6 is a different story. I included Redick making his three in our parallel universe for a reason. In Game 5, Durant made two ridiculous threes in the final four minutes, one of which came in the fateful final 49 seconds. OKC needed every single point they got, and if he misses either of those, they don't win. Redick got a clean look at 2:40 and he missed. The referees didn't help the Clippers -- but neither did they help themselves. Doc Rivers has said many times and said again last night, it's a make-or-miss league -- OKC won Game 6 for a reason.

Even without Redick's three, the outcome of the game might have been very different had the officiating crew not called back-to-back offensive fouls in less than 30 seconds. It's actually pretty astounding when you think about it. All the old tropes -- the home team gets the calls, the superstars get the calls, the NBA wants the series to go seven, the NBA likes big market teams -- these calls broke all the rules. On back-to-back plays, the two biggest stars of the home team (and two of the biggest stars in the league) were called for offensive fouls, nullifying baskets that would have contributed to a thrilling comeback and potentially forced a Game 7. Honestly, what was this officiating crew thinking? If only for eliminating the possibility of must-see-TV on Sunday, they really screwed the pooch, you know what I'm saying? If those two buckets stand and Griffin gets a three point play, it's a two point game, STAPLES Center is rocking, the Clippers have all the momentum, Game 6 is headed for a third straight unlikely comeback win, and Clippers-Thunder is ready to enter the pantheon of great playoff series of all time. The NBA should fine the refs for NOT manipulating the outcome in favor of the Clippers -- it would have been so much better for the league if they had.

I feel surprisingly sanguine about the end of this Clippers season. The core is in tact, Donald Sterling is on his way out, Doc Rivers' press conferences are always terrific. The West, as we all know, was freaking loaded this season, and all the evidence indicates that the Clippers were either the second or third best team in the NBA this season. Sadly, they met the other team that was either second or third best in the conference semifinals, and one of those teams had to lose this series. Some day Tim Duncan will die and the Spurs will no longer be the best -- and the Clippers and Thunder will battle in the playoffs again. And perhaps in that future series, the human but completely unbiased refs will make all of their mistakes in favor of the Clippers.