The Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves at the center of a storm Monday night in San Antonio, one they barely managed to survive.
Most of America might hate the San Antonio Spurs, or at the very least, it might resent the Spurs’ longstanding excellence as the NBA’s closest approximation of a 21st-century empire. Yet, even an empire can be the object of empathy, and if immediate Twitter reaction is any indication, most NBA fans felt the Spurs were wronged by referee Marc Davis, who didn’t call Oklahoma City inbounder Dion Waiters for an offensive foul (or an inbounding violation) after he elbowed San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili at the end of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
The Thunder won the game, 98-97, to knot the series at a game apiece heading into Game 3 this Friday, but everyone’s still talking about the chaotic endgame sequence.
What to make of it? The most essential takeaway — one which will be explained below — is that NBA playoff officiating remains the center of a debate which never seems to go away: Should calls in the final minutes of a game give more leeway to the players in terms of committing fouls or violations? Phrased differently, should the reality of an endgame sequence change the way officials process and make calls?
In order to understand the endgame of Thunder-Spurs from Monday, it’s worth taking a trip back in time to one of the more infamous — and underappreciated — calls in NBA playoff history.
Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks produced one of the most discussed and criticized calls in NBA history: Hue Hollins’s whistle against Scottie Pippen on Hubert Davis’s jumper with 2.1 seconds left and the Bulls leading by one in a 2-2 series. Davis made two foul shots, the Knicks won the game, and they eventually took the series in seven games, paving the way for an NBA Finals appearance in the year Michael Jordan skipped the playoffs due to his first retirement.
Younger fans who saw the OKC-Spurs ending on Monday would do well to read up on that game, and we’ll provide the salient links right here.
Let’s first get one point out of the way: The debate from that play is not whether Pippen hit Davis or not. He did:
The problem — the source of the Bulls’ legitimate gripe — is that in 1994, referees consistently offered little relief to airborne shooters in terms of calling fouls. J.A. Adande made that point in a 2009 piece in which he interviewed the central figures in the drama.
If the shooter was hit after the ball was released, officials didn’t call fouls in 1994… but Hue Hollins did on that night in Madison Square Garden. As a result, he had to acknowledge that he blew the call, as Melissa Isaacson noted in an October 1994 story from the Chicago Tribune.
(Keep in mind that a non-shooting foul can be called when a shooter is hit after he returns to the floor. That didn’t apply in this case, but if there was any doubt that Davis did in fact get fouled or not, the Bulls were over the limit, meaning that even if this was perceived as a non-shooting foul based on 1994 officiating tendencies, Davis still would have gained two free throws.)
The lingering problem from Bulls-Knicks Game 5 in 1994 is still with us today, manifested in the end of Game 2 of Thunder-Spurs. Officials called a certain play in a certain way in 1994, but deviated from that standard practice in the final seconds of a game. The issue really isn’t (or wasn’t) whether a foul occurred 22 years ago; the issue is that officials regularly ignored that level of contact and consistently told players that kind of play did not merit a foul in the NBA of 1994.
It’s a lot like balls and strikes — or pace of play — in baseball: The rules have long enabled umpires to call more strikes and force hitters to stay in the batter’s box; they just didn’t enforce those rules as a matter of practice. The problem wasn’t the rulebook; it was lax enforcement of said rulebook by the arbiters.
This is what existed in Thunder-Spurs Game 2.
Obviously Waiters can't shove Ginobili, but Ginobili can't go over the line either. pic.twitter.com/9SY1UO8FLH
— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 3, 2016
"Until the passed ball has crossed the plane of the boundary, no player shall have any part of his person over the boundary line."
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 3, 2016
There’s no ambiguity here: Manu Ginobili committed a delay of game violation before Dion Waiters elbowed him. The elbowing is what most people remember, because it was the most dramatic part of the play as seen in real time. Only with subsequent replays did it become clear that Ginobili crowded Waiters on the inbound pass. Nevertheless, by rule, as Kevin Pelton states above in his tweet, that’s not allowed. A delay-of-game warning is the penalty.
This is where we get into a familiar source of difficulty with NBA officiating:
Delay of game warnings should be called much more often than they are on endgame inbounds passes. It's a neglected call, much like traveling
— Crossover Chronicles (@crossoverNBA) May 3, 2016
When calls are neglected, it is simultaneously reasonable and nearly impossible to make a clean argument, because rule and precedent clash.
— Crossover Chronicles (@crossoverNBA) May 3, 2016
That clash between rule and precedent was in evidence in 1994 in MSG, and it’s very much in play here as well in Thunder-Spurs Game 2.
Think of how regularly traveling is simply ignored in the NBA. Within the context of this season, consider a play from a Charlotte-Sacramento game on January 25. Charlotte’s Troy Daniels does what NBA shooters regularly do: He jumps to square himself with the basket after making the catch.
Troy Daniels buries game winning 3 in Sacramento, traveled just a bit https://t.co/pl69EPhuHg
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 26, 2016
Obviously, a shooter is supposed to jump and square himself before or during the process of gathering the ball. He catches the pass, he lands on his feet, and then he springs up to shoot. However, NBA players commonly duck in a hop after the catch.
Why? Just as in 1994 on the matter of calling fouls against jump shooters, NBA refs ignore the rules on traveling. As a matter of standard practice, they do NOT nail shooters for taking an extra hop after catching a pass in advance of a shot. Daniels, for Charlotte, used that extra hop to hit a game-winning basket. It was, in many ways, the game which sent Sacramento into a tailspin from which it never recovered this past season.
The point can’t be stressed enough: NBA referees ignore or downplay the rules all the time. This is why officiating remains such a point of contention around the league every year, without cessation. You can always cite the rulebook, but if referees ignore it as a point of culture and practice, everyone involved comes to expect a certain kind of call… even if that call goes against the rulebook.
It’s a perfect storm.
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 3, 2016
Very simply, calling a delay of game violation on an inbound pass is another one of those calls officials don’t make very often as a point of practice — not in the NBA, and not in college, either. What’s especially notable about delay of game violations on inbounds passes is that they don’t become objects of scrutiny until the end of a game. Defensive players don’t maniacally contest inbound passes at all points in a game, but at the end of a game, they certainly do.
Remember this play below? It’s from this year — January 4, 2016. Once again, a team from the state of Oklahoma tried to inbound the ball late in a game. Once again, the opponent committed what, by rule, should have been a delay of game violation… and it wasn’t called:
Refs gonna act like he had enough room to inbound that ball? pic.twitter.com/A6CUNEBY27
— Meninist (@MeninistTweet) January 5, 2016
The only difference between Oklahoma-Kansas on Jan. 4 and Thunder-Spurs Game 2 is that after Kansas stole the ball from Oklahoma, it scored and changed the outcome of the game. The Jayhawks won as a partial result of that steal. The Spurs got a steal off Dion Waiters’s errant inbounds pass… but couldn’t convert:
People might hate the Spurs for being really good all the time, but they’re not sore losers. Manu Ginobili himself owned up to the fact that his team had a chance after the delay of game violation wasn’t called… and blew it:
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 3, 2016
The crazy part of Monday night’s endgame sequence is that for all the understandable furor about the non-foul call on Waiters, and the missed delay of game warning on Ginobili, another non-call could have become a nuclear-grade issue had Patty Mills made his jump shot in the final five seconds:
whoa whoa whoa AND Steven Adams had his arm grabbed by a fan on that last play pic.twitter.com/2EwdJuwMnv
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) May 3, 2016
At all levels of basketball, extreme and inappropriate behavior by fans can result in a technical foul against the home team. This should have been a technical foul regardless, but just imagine what would have happened had the Spurs rebounded the Mills miss for a two-point basket, putting the Spurs up by one. Also imagine what would have happened if Mills made his three-pointer. A technical would have given OKC a chance to trim a two-point deficit to one.
In so many ways and on so many levels, Patty Mills did the world a favor by taking a terrible shot at the end of Game 2. Had the Spurs scored there, this chaotic-enough sequence would have become 10,000 times more controversial.
Ultimately, we return to the heart of the matter: No matter what the rulebook might say or allow, when officials consistently ignore certain rules or principles as a matter of practice, they put themselves — and everyone involved — in an impossible situation.
The NBA — and basketball itself — ought to be governed by the simple principle that if you have rules, you enforce them, and you enforce them at all times. If X is a foul or violation in the first minute of a game, it’s the same in the last minute. Some fans will say “let them play,” but the whole idea of “letting players play” should always presume that they play within the rules as they are set down.
If officials let rules slide — as we see all too often in the NBA — you’ll get a lot of upset fans… as we saw on Monday night.
Consistent enforcement of each and every rule is the easy solution to this problem. The NBA has made progress on this front, but as Thunder-Spurs Game 2 reminds us, the league still has a long way to go in terms of winning the trust of its fans on the matter of endgame officiating.