On Tuesday night in San Antonio, officials during the Rockets-Spurs game blew a call. This is nothing new. It happens frequently, far too frequently some might argue. However, in most cases it's a missed foul or a ball that goes out of bounds off the other team. This was different.
With just under eight minutes left in the game, the Rockets ahead but seeing their lead erode, James Harden stole an errant pass near half court and took it in for an easy, uncontested dunk. Then, something really strange happened.
The ball got caught in the net and was swung under the rim back up on top and almost went in again. After it caromed off the backboard. The ball ultimately wound up out of bounds. Make no mistake, it went in. From a distance and in the heat of the moment, it might have appeared the ball went into the basket and popped back out, but it did not. It went through the net, came out the bottom and somehow was flung back up into the air.
Officials called it a missed basket and gave the ball to the Spurs. Then, after the game, admitting they blew the call, they also said it was a play that could be challenged, but the Rockets didn't request a challenge within 30 seconds, the league rule. That would have been difficult to do given that the Rockets didn't even know what the officials had called. It's particularly galling considering how officials routinely check shots like three pointers to confirm the call was correct (if a toe was on the line, it's a two pointer, for example).
In the end, the Rockets did ultimately surrender the lead and lose...by two points...in double overtime.
We can save what the Rockets did wrong to lose a game they led by 22 for now. That was pretty awful. But, when Harden put down that dunk, it was an important moment in the game. The Spurs were closing in and that dunk felt like a momentum swing for the Rockets. Those moments in games can often be enough to stem the tide of a comeback and stabilize leads. It's happened many times before.
By the same token, a blown call can paralyze a team as it did the Rockets and deepen the problems while giving an even greater edge to their opponents, as was the case Tuesday.
So, what is the NBA supposed to do? Because the Rockets are definitely going to protest, as they should.
The NBA could simply say, "we blew it" and leave the results as is. This has been the preferred method for the Association in the vast majority of these types of situations, choosing not to interfere with game results on a chance call.
They could say the points were good and award the win to the Rockets as the score at the end of regulation would then have had the Rockets with the lead. That is the most unlikely scenario for many of the same reasons they tend to leave outcomes alone most of the time.
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The third option would be to rewind the game to the 7:50 mark in the fourth quarter when the play happened and have the teams play those last eight-plus minutes as if it never happened. That is rare, but there is precedent. Shaquille O'Neal was forced to leave a game with six fouls when he in fact only had five. The league allowed the teams in question to replay the final minute of that game.
While probably the most reasonable option, it presents its own issues. One of the significant factors in the Rockets loss was fatigue. Starters including Harden and Russell Westbrook were loaded with minutes and clearly gassed as the game came to its final conclusion. Still, by their own admission, they played poor defense throughout the fourth quarter. Would that one play have turned the tide? We'll never know, but that is certainly what the Rockets organization is going to argue.
A bigger issue is what the NBA will do to remedy this in the future. Officials in all pro sports leagues are coming under increased scrutiny from teams, fans and the media thanks to technology and social media. The pressure is mounting for leagues to show accountability in officiating or risk alienating fans.
This may have been a total fluke of a play — how often does a ball come out of the basket and mysteriously flip itself back up onto the rim? — but if not this, it will be something else in the future and the NBA needs to be prepared. Because, whatever they decide to do, what happened on Tuesday night cannot happen again. Not to any team.