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Rockets File Protest Over Officiating Error in Loss to Clippers

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The referees messed up. How much did it matter?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the closing minutes of the Clippers’ 128-118 win against the Houston Rockets on Friday night, the officials made a critical—and, the Rockets would argue, game-deciding—error.

With 3:10 to play and the Clippers leading 114-109, James Harden drove past Sam Dekker, and Jawun Evans reached in to attempt to strip the ball away from Harden. He clearly caught Harden’s forearm, sending the Rockets’ leading scorer to the free throw line (whether or not that should have been a shooting foul is a question unrelated to the bigger issue here). The officiating crew, in a rather unbelievable mistake that was immediately obvious to the ESPN broadcast crew and most viewers, attributed the foul to Clippers guard Lou Williams instead of Evans.

The issue: Williams had 0 fouls, so picking up his first personal of the game hardly presented a problem for the Clippers. Evans, on the other hand, had five fouls, meaning that this play should have disqualified him. The rookie point guard had played one of his best games as a pro, totaling 13 points and 5 assists up to that point while guarding Harden for much of the night, and it continued after the officiating error: Evans’ pesky full-court defense forced Harden into two (questionable but non-reviewable) offensive fouls at the 2:20 and 1:31 marks. The Rockets were down by 6 points at the time of the first foul drawn by Evans and 9 at the time of the second foul. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, upset at the officiating, also picked up a technical foul during this stretch (although Lou Williams missed the free throw). The Clippers clearly had the upper hand at both points, but for a high-powered Rockets offense full of potent shooters, those two possessions would have been critical parts of any potential comeback.

Evans’ final contribution of the game was an offensive rebound with 38 seconds left and the Clippers leading by 10—after the rebound, Harden committed his 6th and final foul and then picked up a technical, leading to two Evans free throws and a Lou Williams free throw that stretched the margin to 13.

Frankly, there is no doubt that the referees made an obvious, objective error that negatively affected the Houston Rockets and benefited the L.A. Clippers. Jamil Wilson had already fouled out, forcing Sam Dekker into the lineup, and an Evans disqualification would have likely resulted in C.J. Williams subbing in. While Williams has performed admirably for the Clippers this season when called up from Agua Caliente, he had not had nearly the same impact on either end of the floor that Evans had, and he had struggled significantly against Harden where Evans had frustrated, though not stymied, the league’s best offensive talent.

I think that it’s perfectly fair and reasonable for the Rockets to file this protest. Frankly, I can see the logic in a potential league ruling to replay the last 3:10 of this game the next time these two teams meet, something that has happened at least once in NBA history (when a scorer’s table error forced Shaq out of a game with 5 fouls). I also think there’s a pretty decent case to be made that the game’s result should be upheld, though we should all admit the Rockets were disadvantaged by the referee error.

It seems to me that Houston’s case is pretty straightforward: basketball is a fluid, complex game, and nothing that happened after the officiating mistake happens the same without Jawun Evans. Forget about everything that happened in the final 3 minutes, and the situation is this: Houston is down 5 with 3:10 left and James Harden, an excellent free throw shooter, headed to the line. That’s certainly a winnable game for both teams, and while it’s hard to state definitively that Houston would have won if the foul had been attributed accurately, it’s pretty easy to say that the Clippers were advantaged by being allowed to keep Evans in instead of having to put C.J. Williams back on Harden defensively.

Here are two points that I think can be effectively made on the Clippers’ side:

1) Three minutes of Jawun Evans did not make a 10-point difference.

Let’s indulge in a gross oversimplification of how basketball works—in the three minutes after he should have been disqualified, Evans took two charges and was fouled after getting an offensive rebound, making both free throws. If you assume that the Rockets would have made three-pointers on both possessions where he took those charges, that’s still 8 points, which is short of a 10-point margin that doesn’t include the Clippers not playing serious offense during the last minute of a double-digit victory and similarly not-intense defense allowing 5 free last-minute points to Houston.

Now, the effects of Evans’ presence is more nuanced—he guarded Harden on the possessions where he didn’t draw an offensive foul as well, he spaced the floor on offense, he ran the lane on the fast break, etc. You can make a case that Harden played differently defensively in the closing minutes because of foul trouble that wouldn’t have existed if Evans hadn’t stayed in the game. But the reality is that the large margin works decisively against the Rockets here. It’s a lot easier to argue that those little factors could have swung a single-possession game than a double-digit one. My count above also includes the assumption that both possessions the Rockets lost on Evans-drawn offensive fouls would have turned into made threes, which is pretty unlikely though technically possible.

2) The Clippers Shouldn’t Be Punished for an Officiating Mistake

Look, Houston got screwed by that call. However, the margin of victory seemingly makes it pretty likely that they didn’t get screwed out of a win. If the last 3:10 of this game are replayed, and the Rockets end up winning, then the Clippers will have gotten screwed out of a win. This was not a decision by the Clippers to cheat—it was an officiating mistake. If Doc Rivers was aware of the gift the referees had given him (he probably was, as coaching staffs track their own team’s fouls), I don’t think anyone in the sports world is expecting the coach of a struggling 12-18 NBA team to not take any edge he can get. The Clippers did nothing wrong.

But they did a whole lot right. Aside from the two fouls that Evans drew, they did a ton of great things down the stretch that might not be replicable, and it would really suck to have those plays wiped away due to an officiating error. Austin Rivers hit a deep three on the play after the infamous mistake, and then later hit a step-back contested three to stretch the Clippers’ lead to 12. Lou Williams made a crucial dagger, extending the lead from 6 to 9 with 1:35 to go. C.J. Williams took advantage of a Rockets defense that was focused on Rivers by driving to the rim for a huge layup that pushed the lead from 4 to 6 with 2:23 left.

In a similar situation to the Clippers’ victory over the Wizards a few weeks ago, there was a clerical error where neither team did anything wrong, but someone had to get screwed over. In that case, Bradley Beal caught an inbounds pass, trailing by 1 with 1.4 seconds left, and took far longer than a second and a half to release a shot that found the bottom of the net. However, the scorer’s table had started the clock early. Would the referees wave the shot off because Beal had taken longer than 1.4 seconds, screwing over the Wizards who had to have the horn sound in the middle of their possession? Or would they allow a replay of the final play, screwing over the Clippers who would have won had accurate clock-keeping simply allowed Beal to let time expire before releasing his shot? (Ultimately, they allowed a replay, but a Wizards miss led to a Clippers victory—and the Wizards justifiably felt screwed over anyway because they didn’t get as good of a look on their do-over)

In the Rockets game, the referees messed up in a major and obvious way. If the result of the game is upheld (and I think it probably will be, because the NBA wants any excuse to avoid setting a precedent of replaying games except the most egregious cases), the Rockets got screwed over. We don’t know if it cost them a win or not, but it most certainly cost them a fair chance at a win as determined by the rules of the game, and that sucks. If the NBA rules that the end of the game should be replayed, and the Clippers don’t get clutch daggers from Austin Rivers and Lou Williams and fall short, then they get screwed out of an honest effort and huge win on the road.

And it matters--the Clippers are a few games under .500, fighting for their lives to stay on the periphery of the playoff picture while they await eventual returns from injury by starting forwards Danilo Gallinari and Blake Griffin. The Rockets, on the other hand, are just one loss ahead of the Golden State Warriors for first place in the West. The Clippers could end up missing the playoffs, or with a bad first-round match-up, if they are on the short end of this stick. For the Rockets, it could very well be the difference between game 1—and 7—of the Western Conference Finals happening in Houston or Oakland.

I don’t know what the NBA is going to do. I’m leaning toward the result being upheld, as I said above, but I can see pretty compelling reasons to go in both directions. An NBA official made an inexcusable mistake—the league office now has 5 days to decide which team is going to get screwed because of it.