The end of an NBA game typically is a time for the referees to swallow their whistles. Few fans like to see close games decided at the free throw line — unless it is their team headed to the stripe, of course — so except in the rare event that there is a mugging at the hoop, the hardwood in the waning seconds might as well be a New York City blacktop.
Some fouls just need to be called, though.
It is doubtful Kevin Durant needed any extra time in the trainer's room as a result of the contact he received from LeBron James with nine seconds remaining in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. But the uncalled, blatantly illegal contact by James made one wonder if the league's officials were truly serious about combating the perception that they are, at best, inept and, at worst, corrupt.
It is often said in the NFL that a holding penalty is committed on every play. Similarly, every free-flowing NBA possession is the equivalent of a half-dozen NFL plays, each with countless opportunities to commit or get away with something against the rules. Expecting the referees to call every violation is not only unrealistic, it would make for a sputtering, unenjoyable product.
Yet the absence of a call on one of the pivotal plays of Thursday's game was troubling on four specific counts for this sport's remaining defenders.
With nine seconds left and the Oklahoma City Thunder trailing the Miami Heat by two points, the Thunder attempted a quick-hitting post up to Durant on the left block on an inbounds play. The play call caught James by surprise, and he opted not to challenge Durant's shot. Instead, James flexed his off arm against Durant's shooting hand, impeding Durant's shooting motion and leading to a miss. The move was subtle, and it did not result in anybody crashing to the floor, but it needed to be called.
Here is why:
1. Tom Washington was standing right there. There can be no excuses about a referee not having a good line of sight. In both real time and in replays, Washington could be prominently seen peering into the fray. Given his position and body language, Washington had to see the contact, and if he saw the contact and did not feel it was a foul, a few million NBA fans are going to need a new definition of what a foul is.
2. This is not the first time a crew featuring Tony Brothers — who, it must be stated, was not the referee in position to make the call Thursday — has affected a game the Thunder could have won. Brothers was the man on the scene for C.J. Miles' hack job on Durant's game-winning 3-point attempt in Utah back in 2010. The typically mild-mannered Durant came about as close as he does to popping off after the Utah play, and he mostly approached Thursday's play with pure disbelief. Expect Thunder fans from now on to react to Brothers' name the same way Celtics fans react to the name "Marc Davis." If you get an image of the hyenas from The Lion King shuddering at the mention of "Mufasa," you're on the right track.
3. "There's a steal by Bird" would not have lasted long in the memories of Boston fans if the Celtics had gone on to lose Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Similarly, the Thunder's team-wide example of defensive and offensive excellence two possessions earlier than the fateful shot will likely be forgotten thanks to Washington's non-call. The Heat led by five points and were inbounding the ball with 48 seconds left, a situation in which most losing teams are in foul-and-pray mode. The Thunder's approach in that situation was a rare example of valuing execution over merely playing the odds: Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher executed a perfectly timed double-team of Dwyane Wade. James Harden was alert in scooping up the ball and making a difficult outlet bounce pass to Sefolosha, and Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook made heads-up, unselfish passes to find Durant for an open 3-pointer to pull the Thunder within two points. There was no suitable reaction to the play but a simple, "Wow." Now, that play will be buried with a bunch of other impressive, but inadequate, moments from the Oklahoma City loss.
4. There comes a time when one's vocation is under attack by so many outside forces, those who ply their trade have to provide some sort of counterargument through their actions. After three rounds of sustained flagellation by fans from all 16 participating teams, the NBA's officials had arrived at that point before the Finals. They cannot miss fouls like the one James should have been called for, and they cannot put two points on the board for Miami that should not be there when they make an incorrect goaltending call on Serge Ibaka. Honestly, this was almost a very different column. The officiating crew exhibited everything admirable about their profession with 1:11 left in the game, when they got together and used the technology at their disposal to correctly reverse possession on an out-of-bounds play from the Thunder to the Heat. Sports officials are graded on an unfair standard, with one egregious call overshadowing a game full of solid calls, but that was the reality Thursday.
The missed call in question did not affect the outcome of the game all by itself. The Thunder ruined numerous opportunities, as did the Heat, to take control of Game 2. But as James could attest, in the final seconds of a game, everything is magnified. The lack of a whistle on that play would have been cringe-worthy in any setting, but in the given situation, it was unforgivable.