Monday night’s Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Thunder and Spurs was one of the best games of the NBA Playoffs. Both teams played spectacular, exciting basketball, a neck-and-neck affair filled with brilliant play for 47 minutes and 47 seconds.
And then came the game’s final 13 seconds. It’s hard to describe those 13 seconds without acknowledging the massive failures by all parties involved. Both teams made stupid plays. Both teams had a clear-cut path to victory, and both teams squandered their chance in outrageous fashion. Worse, both teams committed multiple infractions, and the third team on the court — the referees — stood silently as basketball calamity unfolded.
The Thunder won, 98-97, and Spurs fans probably feel cheated. But San Antonio committed uncalled violations just like Oklahoma City, and still had the chance to win in the game’s closing seconds. They have themselves to blame as much as any refs or opposing cheaters.
Let’s recap the bounty of failure in the final seconds of Spurs-Thunder:
Failure 1: Billy Donovan lets Dion Waiters make a critical inbounds pass
Oklahoma City found itself with the lead with 13 seconds remaining. They should seal this win easily. They have Kevin Durant, a 6’10 guy who happens to be one of the NBA’s best free throw shooters. They also have Russell Westbrook, who can jump high enough to snag even the most errant inbounds pass, and Serge Ibaka, a big man who is perfectly fine at hitting free throws. They just needed somebody to cleanly inbound the ball, preferably somebody who’s good at passing and makes smart decisions.
For some reason, the person they chose for this role was Dion Waiters. Dion Waiters, for passing and decision-making.
Waiters has developed into a somewhat useful player on one of the NBA’s best teams. But he’s a certified space cadet whose most famous NBA trait is appearing visibly upset or bored when teammates don’t pass him the ball. I can’t really fathom why OKC decided to gamble a critical playoff game on his ability to pass the ball.
Failure 2: Manu Ginobili crosses the out-of-bounds line and it wasn’t called
Ginobili was assigned to guard Waiters on the inbounds pass. A lot of times teams use their tallest player or highest leaper for this role, so a 38-year-old whose ups were never his talent is an interesting call. But Ginobili is wily and has a knack for gaming situations like this, timing jump balls to steal them from taller players and sneaking his way into loose balls.
But this time, he crossed a line — literally.
Ginobili’s shoe is clearly across the gray out-of-bounds line and onto the black off-court. During the play, Ginobili repeatedly flailed his arms and elbows, and appeared to cross the line several times then as well. He’s barely over the line, but … he’s over the line. And that’s not allowed.
Most of the time, this is just a delay of game, which is a warning the first time and a technical foul if a warning has already been called. But in the last two minutes of a game and overtime, the rulebook makes an exception:
In the last two minutes of the fourth period and last two minutes of any overtime period, a technical foul will be assessed if the defender crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line when an offensive player is in a position to inbound and prior to the ball being released on a throw-in.
I can’t recall ever seeing this enforced, and it’s easy to understand why. This rule asks refs to award teams a free chance at a point in late-game scenarios for an infraction that doesn’t even involve physical contact. But at some point, the NBA clearly decided an inbounder’s right to a space on late inbounds passes was worth a clearly stated exception in the rulebook. Even if by a few inches, Ginobili broke the plane, and if referees correctly enforced every rule, they would’ve awarded Oklahoma City a technical shot.
(While we’re talking about missed Spurs calls, they clearly held several Thunder players to prevent them from getting open on the inbound pass. This happens often, but by the letter of the law, those should have been foul calls as well).
Failure 3: Waiters freakin’ elbows Ginobili and nobody calls it
Waiters, upset with Ginobili’s encroachment, does something I’ve never seen an inbounder do before. He actually reaches over the line and checks Ginobili backwards with his elbow.
Honestly, I’ve been scanning the NBA’s rulebook all night, and I’ll be honest. It doesn’t explicitly say the thrower-in isn’t allowed to whack players on the court. It states the inbounder can’t carry the ball inbounds, step over the line before the ball is released, or hand the ball to a player on the court, but technically, it doesn’t rule out smacking on-court players. A loophole! It also doesn’t rule out hitting them with bats or building elaborate Rube Goldberg machines to drop anvils on them.
Waiters’ blatantly initiates contact. This would’ve been an offensive foul at any point in the game. There’s no reason referees shouldn’t have called an offensive foul on him here. After the game, lead referee Ken Mauer admitted he too had never seen a play like this, but that it should’ve been an offensive foul.
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) May 3, 2016
It’s a bit crazy to imagine being an NBA ref in this situation. You’re prepared to make a split-second interpretation of any of hundreds of rules based on decades of experience, and suddenly you’re suddenly confronted with a basketball play you’ve never seen before.
But in this case, the ruling was obvious. Waiters clearly committed a foul. Sure, it was an unusual one none of us have ever seen. But the refs should’ve been able to diagnose it and penalize him.
Failure 4: Waiters jumps on the inbound pass, which goes uncalled
True, the rulebook doesn’t rule out the inbounder punching their opponent, or stabbing them, or finding out they’re scared of spiders and releasing hundreds of tarantulas onto the court. But it does rule out something else Waiters did: jumping.
Ever the innovator, Waiters’ inbounds pass actually takes the form and arc of a jump shot rather than a pass. He was so off-balance after illegally shoving Ginobili, he didn’t quite have the leverage to get the ball to Durant in a normal way, so he took to the air. One problem though: This is illegal too. The rulebook explicitly states an inbounder can’t “leave the playing surface to gain an advantage on a throw-in.”
There’s no clarification of what that means — maybe it’s supposed to prevent players from going up into the stands as a distraction? — but Waiters has pretty clearly left the playing surface here.
For the second time in under a second, Waiters has committed a violation worthy of a turnover. Impressive!
At first, I thought there was a five-second violation here, but upon a rewatch, the refs’ count was fine. Waiters has the ball in his hands for about 4.6-4.7 seconds. That’s not something the refs missed.
Failure 5: Waiters throws the ball up for grabs
REMEMBER WHAT I SAID EARLIER ABOUT HOW DION WAITERS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR INBOUNDING GUY IN A LATE-GAME SITUATION? YEAH THIS IS WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT
Failure 6: The Spurs squander a 3-on-1
After Waiters’ turnover, the Spurs have the ball in this scenario:
Danny Green has Patty Mills ahead of him and Manu Ginobili on his right. The only Thunder player with the potential to stop the play is Steven Adams. The second-closest Thunder player, Durant, is on his literal butt.
Spurs fans can lament that the multiple violations on Waiters weren’t called, any one of which would’ve given San Antonio the ball with a chance for basketball mastermind Gregg Popovich to draw up a play. But as brilliant as Popovich is, no play he could draw up would’ve given three Spurs a run at the rim with only one Thunder player defending. This is about as good a scenario as you can get.
But it goes awry. Green lofts a pass to Mills that carries so far that Mills has to leap to snag it, carrying him all the way under the basket. The ball hung in the air for so long that Adams, backpedaling and several steps behind the play, has a chance to catch up. A better transition scorer might have attempted a shot or at least drawn a foul, but Mills passes to Ginobili.
Ginobili seems to have a few looks at the basket against the discombobulated Thunder, but instead throws an overhead floater to Mills at the three-point arc. Perhaps Ginobili thought Mills had highest percentage shot available, but still, he decided to give his teammate look from three in a 1-point game. And it turned out to be a contested one: the floating pass again gives Adams time to recover, and he deflects Mills’ three.
Mills and Green aren’t players you’d like to pick to run a fast break, and it showed. Poor decision-making and poor execution, primarily on Green’s pass, squandered an opportunity that should’ve won San Antonio the game.
We’ve written a lot in this post about who failed and how, but Adams deserves some sort of medal. On this play, he did the work of three men. In a few seconds, he forced the ball handler to commit to a pass, got to the rim to stop the person the ball was passed to, guarded the bucket from a third player and got out to the three-point line juuuuuust in time to get the tips of his fingers on the ball. Adams needed decent speed, every inch of his 7-foot frame and spectacular defensive instincts to make all of these plays. Luckily, he had each. We rarely talk about clutch transition defense, but that’s what Adams displayed here.
Failure 7: Serge Ibaka maims some Spurs, which goes uncalled
Ibaka is the blur wedged in between two white jerseys at the top of the screen here:
In an incredible feat of tenacious nagging, Ibaka is simultaneously fouling two Spurs. His right arm is looped over Kawhi Leonard’s arm and grabbing his jersey. His left arm is yanking on LaMarcus Aldridge’s jersey.
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) May 3, 2016
When Mills’ shot gets blocked, it turns into a loose ball, and Ibaka’s handiwork means neither Leonard nor Aldridge is able to get to the ball. You don’t expect to see fouls called away from the ball on game-deciding plays, but Ibaka’s grabbing is still a little over the top.
Failure 8: A fan grabs Steven Adams and nobody does anything
Shortly after Adams’ heroics, an arm comes from the stands and snags him:
Adams’ closeout causes him to bump into a fan in the front row. The fan apparently decides Adams should stay in the first row, reaching up to grab his arm and hold him back. This is bad! It turns out not to matter as the play moves away from Adams, but if the ball bounces differently, this fan’s actions could’ve prevented Adams from making a play in the decisive moments of a playoff game.
San Antonio should’ve been hit with a technical foul for this fan’s actions. I don’t want to be too harsh on the fan in question — it’s possible she just lost her balance after being bumped by a very large human and grabbed onto the first thing she saw. But fans in the front rows at basketball games have to remember that their awesome seat is a privilege, not a license to participate in on-court action.
I blame Dion Waiters for inspiring this fan to reach across boundaries when clearly it isn’t legal.
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Chris Webber rips the refs for the non-call on the inbound pass