Clippers Robbed by NBA Officials in Game 5 at OKC

May 14, 2014

A crime took place on Tuesday night. The scene of the crime was the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where the LA Clippers and OKC Thunder were playing Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The perpetrators were the NBA officiating crew. The beneficiaries - the victorious OKC Thunder and their fans.

The victims of the crime were the LA Clippers, and, more generally, any basketball fan who believed that the NBA replay system had a modicum of integrity.

Let’s get to the facts and recreate the circumstances that led to one of the most disgraceful officiating calls in NBA playoffs history.

After Chris Paul’s jump shot with just over 49 seconds remaining in the game, the Clippers had a seemingly insurmountable 104-97 lead over the Thunder. That’s when the Thunder began an improbable rally, which began with a quick Kevin Durant 3-pointer to cut the Clippers’ lead to 4 points. The Clippers then responsibly waited until the shot clock went down before Chris Paul missed a shot. Durant subsequently took off running and scored on a fastbreak layup with about 17 seconds left to cut the lead to 104-102.

That’s when Chris Paul uncharacteristically turned the ball over in the backcourt after being stripped by Russell Westbrook. Paul seemed to make the steal possible when, in anticipation of an intentional foul from Westbrook, Paul jumped in the air, apparently trying to shoot a ¾ court shot so he could be awarded three free throws instead of two.

In any case, the loose ball rolled over to Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, who drove to the basket. As he went up for the shot, Jackson was hit on the left wrist by the Clippers Matt Barnes. The slap jarred the ball free for just an instant before Jackson's right hand knocked the ball out of bounds with 11.3 seconds remaining.

Initially it appeared as though a foul might have been called. Such a call would have been proper, because Barnes definitely hit Jackson's wrist. However, there was no foul call. The issue now was determining exactly who the ball was out on. The very first replay of the play on the TNT broadcast from the side angle (the replay TNT inexplicably refused to show for the rest of the night, including during the post-game show) clearly showed that the ball was out on Jackson.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers watched the replay on the big arena screen and was elated with what he saw. Many in the Oklahoma City crowd groaned in disappointment at that moment as well.

Rivers was very familiar with the situation. Late in Game 1 of the Clippers previous playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, Clippers point guard Chris Paul was bumped along the baseline and the ball went out of bounds. No foul was called and the officials went to the replay monitor to determine possession. The replay clearly showed that Paul was fouled and that the ball went off him as a result of being bumped. However, the referees explained to the disappointed Clippers head coach that the replay could only be used to determine who touched the ball last, not to correct a non-foul call on the court. The result was that the Warriors were given the ball and won the game.

With that incident fresh in his mind, Rivers knew that the referees had no choice but to award the Clippers the ball. He quickly began to draw up an offensive set for the Clippers next inbound pass.

That’s when everything went crazy.

Despite having access to slow-motion replay and no time limit to make a determination, the NBA officials looked over the play a few times and amazingly awarded the ball to the Thunder.

(NOTE: Subsequently some clever NBA folks like Stu Jackson began suggesting another absurd rationale for the officials ruling - one the game officials actually never cited: An NBA rule stating that if a defensive player hit the hand of the offensive player and caused the ball to go out of bounds, then possession would remain with the offense. Basically, the "hand is part of the ball" rule.

This rule hardly seems to apply in this case. Barnes hit Jackson’s left hand and then the ball was loose for a moment before being knocked out by Jackson’s right hand. Barnes never actually hit Jackson’s right hand. To give the ball to OKC then, would be the equivalent of absurdly stating that Barnes hit the ball out because he hit Jackson's  left hand...and the left hand is part of the right hand.)

For an NBA official to get any crucial call wrong at the end of a close playoff game is disturbing, but often understandable. The game is played by large athletes at an extremely quick pace. It is impossible to see everything clearly.

But when you have the ability to use replay, the NBA officials have no such excuses. Any person with basic 20-20 vision could tell that Jackson hit the ball out (provided the right replay angle).

The Thunder gleefully took advantage of this obvious injustice and quickly got the ball to Westbrook, who then unwisely chose to take a very difficult and contested 3-pointer over Chris Paul. To his teammates relief, Westbrook was bailed out by a dubious foul call which gave him three free throws with six seconds left to play. (The replays appear inconclusive as to whether Paul actually made any contact with Westbrook’s wrist.) Westbrook then sank all three free throws to give his team a 105-104 lead.

Thereafter the Clippers called timeout before running a play for Chris Paul. On his way to the basket, Paul was slapped on the arm by Reggie Jackson and then lost the ball. The refs this time decided a “touch foul” did not need to be called and let play continue.

As the loose ball was picked up by Serge Ibaka, Paul immediately started to foul him with about one second remaining in order to stop the clock. At that point with a timeout and only down one point, the Clippers still had a slim chance. But unfortunately the referees capped off their wonderful night's performance by completely ignoring Paul’s obvious take foul on Ibaka and let the remaining time elapse.

Game over. Thunder win, 105-104.

The replay miscall was so blatant, that initially the only explanation appeared to be that the NBA officials, choosing to create their own brand of “justice,” simply decided that the Thunder deserved the ball because Jackson was really fouled -- essentially the exact opposite of the approach taken by the officials in the Clippers-Warriors series.

After the game Doc Rivers was justifiably filled with righteous anger at such a possibility. “It was our ball,” Rivers said. “Everybody knows it was our ball. I think the bottom line is they thought it was a foul and they made up for it. Then, in my opinion, let’s take away replay. Let’s take away the replay system because that's our ball, we win the game and we got robbed because of that call. It’s clear….Whether it was a foul or not and it was, but they didn’t call it.”

Surprisingly referee Tony Brothers added a new wrinkle to the controversy when he suggested after the game that the officials had only had access to two replay angles, both of which were inconclusive.

But Rivers scoffed at the possibility that the officials just didn’t have the right replay angle - the one shown to the fans at the game. “I don’t want to hear that they didn’t have that replay. That’s a bunch of crap. That what I heard. That’s a bunch of crap, and you all know it.”

Unfortunately, while Rivers is 100% correct that the replay shown to the fans at the stadium clearly shows the ball went off Reggie Jackson, it is actually not clear whether the NBA officiating crew actually ever saw that replay. In fact, much to TNT’s discredit, the home television audience was only shown the proper replay one time – before being fed a constant barrage of replays from angles that were far less conclusive. Amazingly, by the end of the night even ESPN and NBA TV were showing the wrong replay angles too, thereby perpetuating the lie that it was actually a tough call.

A person of ordinary curiosity might be concerned that the proper side angle replay had become as inaccessible after the game as the Zapruder film was after Kennedy’s assassination.

And even though the pundits at TNT, ESPN, and NBA TV almost universally seemed to gloss over the absurdity of the officiating in this game, it is still no less astonishing for the rational-minded NBA viewer.

The foul call against Paul on the Westbrook 3-point attempt was questionable, as was the subsequent non-call when Jackson reached in and slapped Paul on the forearm (just as he lost the ball) with two seconds remaining. Even more bizarre was the officials’ refusal to call the intentional foul Paul tried to take against Ibaka in the final second.

Nonetheless, each of those three incidents, as tough as they might be for a Clippers fan to swallow, can arguably be seen as just part of the game. The referees have to make a subjective decision on close calls at high speeds. It is impossible to get it right all of the time.

But screwing up a call on replay is simply a level of incompetence that goes beyond any mistakes made by a referee in real time. It is simply inexcusable and that is why Doc Rivers was so furious. The NBA should be ashamed of this game. Either its officials intentionally called it wrong (to “make up” for the missed foul call) or they rushed to judgment without actually seeing the correct replay – in a playoff game no less!

If the latter is the truth, then the fault can be found in the haste of the officials in not waiting for the right angle or the negligence of the NBA employees -- they better not be OKC Thunder arena employees -- responsible for providing the referees all the correct replay angles. In any case, the NBA needs to find and reprimand the people responsible for this colossal screw up. The NBA can’t give the Clippers justice by giving them the game back, but they can hopefully solve that mystery before something like this happens ever again.

By Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for

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