Trailing by seven with less than seven minutes to play, the Los Angeles Clippers closed on a 17-5 run to defeat the Lakers 111-106 on Christmas. It was a great game between two great teams, and it's just unfortunate that it was, in part, decided by a call that goes completely against the spirit of the rule.
Long story short, the Lakers, down by three after LeBron James had missed a free throw to cut the deficit to two, had the ball with 19.2 seconds to play. LeBron, kind of inexplicably, bled the clock all the way down to under five seconds before he finally got into his move -- a side-step 3-pointer moving right. But Patrick Beverley stripped James just as he was getting into his release. The ball went out of bounds, initially ruled off Beverley.
Of course, the call on the court went to replay. What call doesn't these days? So here is what the officials were looking at. First, the long view as seen by everyone watching the play on their TVs at home.
OK, looks pretty clear. Beverley stripped LeBron. Ball went out of bounds. Lakers ball.
But then you get a little closer look.
Wait, maybe that's not as clear as it looked? Perhaps the ball did hit LeBron last? Let's zoom in a little closer.
And there it is. After staring at multiple angles through the lens of a low-powered telescope, it appears the ball, indeed, glanced off LeBron's fingers before going out of bounds. Call on the court is overturned. Clippers are awarded possession with 3.6 seconds left. The Lakers now have to foul. Paul George hits a couple of free throws. Game over.
With that, the air was completely sucked out of what was shaping up to be a great ending to a great game. It was the right call, technically. The ball did hit LeBron's hand last. But that's not, as they say, the spirit of the rule. If this play doesn't happen in the waning minutes, or in this case seconds, of the game, it doesn't go to review and the call stands as Lakers ball.
That is the spirit of the rule. That's the spirit of the rule on any basketball court in the world, blacktop to Staples Center. The defender strips the ball clean out of the offensive player's hands, the ball goes out of bounds, possession stays with the offense. It's only natural, when a player has control of the ball only to have it knocked from his hands, that on the way out the ball is going to graze the offensive player's fingertips last.
This exact type of play, and subsequent replay reversal, has cost numerous teams on numerous occasions. It has helped decide playoff games. You see this particularly on strips and blocked shots quite often.
But the point is, you only see it when you put the play through a magnified, frame-by-frame digital interrogation. Replay is a tough subject. You understand wanting to get every call right. No team, or player, wants to be burned by clear human error. But there are clearly limits on how, and when, to use it. If there weren't, they would review every call all game long. There's a responsibility not to compromise the entertainment value of the game in search of an impossible standard of officiating perfection.
Finding the balance between the modern powers of technology and their unintended consequences is not easy. The NBA does a pretty good job of trying to evolve its rules, and enforcements, to keep up with the evolution of the players and game itself. It will never be perfect, but it can be better.
Defensive players, for instance, shouldn't be rewarded for fouling a 3-point shooter when they have a three-point lead to keep said shooter from attempting a game-tying shot. The whole point of a foul is to punish the offender and discourage him or her from doing the same thing again. This rule encourages what should be a detrimental action to the defense.
That's one example. There are many others. You put a system in place, and you tweak it as you go as the inevitable loop holes are exposed. The play in question on Wednesday doesn't exactly reflect a loop hole. Again, the ball did hit LeBron last. But you have to decide if you want it to be a game of basketball or a game of close-up replays. If it's a 50-50 ball and you truly don't know who touched it last, fine, go to replay. But when you clearly see one guy hit the ball out of another guy's hands, you don't need to go shining the black light on every little detail in search of things you're better off not knowing about.
Of course, Patrick Beverley and the Clippers wouldn't say they were better off not knowing who touched the ball last. Finding out the truth potentially won them the game. But remember, the NBA, ultimately, isn't about getting every single call right or even winning and losing. It's about entertainment. The end of this game should've been an edge-of-your-seat thriller. We were all robbed of that on a technicality.
ESPN's Royce Young, among many others, has a similar viewpoint.
It’s clearly off LeBron. He touched it last. That’s not the point of this. If I held a ball out in front of me and you swipe down and hit it straight out of bounds, frame by frame, it may graze my pinky finger last. But who is it really out on? That’s my point. It’s common sense.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) December 26, 2019
Taking this play to replay in search of minute evidence feels like some bored cop going in a back room and watching old tapes of thousand of cars passing by a street camera and sending a retroactive ticket to the guy going one MPH over the speed limit. Hey, it's right there on tape! That's the rule!
Yes, it's the rule. But if the offender decided to fight the ticket and go to court, and the judge had to sit on his bench and watch slow-motion re-runs of a car going 56 in a 55, while he might uphold the ruling once faced with the indisputable video evidence, everyone in that court room would be wondering what in the heck they were doing there.
Keeping it in the sports field, this is like the base stealer in baseball who beats the throw, beats the tag, but when the NASA telescope gets focused on his foot, you see that his toe briefly popped an inch off the bag as he was standing up and the shortstop's glove was still on him.
Call overturned. Runner is out.
But was the runner really out by the spirit of what it means to be out? That the tag was put on the runner before he or she touched the bag? Common sense should prevail here, and the officials should be granted the power to use their discretion on these types of calls. Beverley clearly knocked the ball out of LeBron's hands. LeBron didn't just shoot it backwards into the front row. I think, or I hope, we can all agree on that. So it's Lakers ball. Or it should be.
None of this is to let LeBron off the hook for the way he handled this final possession, or even for the missed free throw a few seconds earlier. LeBron is only shooting 60 percent from the free throw line in fourth quarters this season, albeit on fewer than two attempts a game.
In fact, LeBron has the worst shooting percentage of the top seven fourth-quarter scorers at 44.8 percent, down from the 51.1 percent he shoots in first quarters, the 52.6 percent he shoots in second quarters and the 47.2 percent he shoots in third quarters.
Don't take these stats without context. A lot of go-to players' percentages dip in the fourth quarter. The whistle gets tighter, and LeBron gets a tight whistle already. The defense gets more physical, and he's often seeing tougher matchups that are saved for the most pivotal stretches of games.
Still, with obvious exceptions, LeBron hasn't been at his most efficient in fourth quarters this season, and he surely wasn't on Wednesday. And he didn't handle that last possession well. By bleeding the clock down from 19 seconds to four seconds, he only opened up the possibility of the Clippers fouling late in the clock to not even give him a chance at attempting a 3-pointer in the first place. It was surprising the Clippers didn't do that, actually.
LeBron basically did nothing with the ball for 15 seconds except dribble around and make on head-scratching pass to a covered Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was always going to pass it right back to LeBron in that situation. That just takes even more time. When LeBron finally got into shot-hunting mode, he bodied up Beverley almost inviting a foul, which, again, would've been bad for the Lakers down by three that late in the clock. They needed a 3-pointer, and LeBron waited until the last seconds to even look for one, and it cost him and the Lakers a shot at tying the game.
But all that said, a league worried about falling ratings shouldn't be deciding high-profile games on the cusp of a last-second, exciting ending through the screen of a replay monitor unless it has no other choice. The call was right, by rule. But the rule needs to change. I don't think you need to get rid of replay altogether, but indeed it's a dangerous precedent to look at something via a replay monitor, see clear evidence that a call was wrong, and then not change it.
What can and can't be reviewed, and when, continues to be at the heart of the general replay debate. Per NBA.com, here are the circumstances necessary to trigger a review on a play such as the one we're talking about:
Officials are not reasonably certain as to which team should be awarded possession after a ball becomes out-of-bounds or whether a called out-of-bounds in fact occurred during the last two minutes of the fourth period or last two minutes of any overtime period(s).
Again, if you were interested in breaking every strip of every ball down to the finest details available to the human eye because the only thing that matters is getting the call correct, you would do it at any point in the game. But for 46 minutes you let the "spirit of the rule" guide you, only to get fingernail technical in the biggest moment. There has to be a better way to do this.