The Problem With Replay Reviews In The NBA Playoffs

If you watched last night's Lakers-Celtics Game 3, you may noticed something. Ray Allen played like Woody Allen, yes. Lamar Odom and Kevin Garnett were exhumed from the netherworld, and Derrick Fisher continued to prove that he simply will not die. These are the obvious takeaways from last night. But you may have noticed something else.

The final two minutes of the game took about 15 minutes to play. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the NBA officials leaned heavily on replay to make sure they nailed out-of-bounds calls that were crucial to both teams. But it was definitely a noticeable difference.

The problem, though, has nothing to do with extending the game. It's this freezeframe:

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As the refs went to the replay monitor in the fourth quarter, going the extra mile to "get it right," you saw some NBA folks gloating. Like NBC's Pro Basketball Talk:

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Indeed, it was refreshing to see the officials getting calls right beyond a shadow of a doubt. But it still felt so... unnatural. Not only did it completely disrupt the flow of the game, but it just seemed bizarre to see the biggest game of the NBA season decided by a series of replay reviews. Within about 60 seconds, we stopped the game three times so the refs could go over to the scorer's table and pore over ABC's replays. Their intent was benign, but it just seemed so out of place.

And then this happened, and it all made sense:

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Casual fans might wonder why the refs don't use replay more often, but this play explains it. Late in the fourth quarter, with Celtics trailing by five, Paul Pierce missed a free throw, there was a scrum underneath the hoop, and the ball caromed out of bounds. (Video at the 1:00 mark here) Lakers ball. Except... Replay review. And upon review, the refs realized the ball went off Odom.

What's the problem, then?

As you can see in this photo, and as was even more obvious on the replay, Rajon Rondo (the stray hand in the photo) clearly fouled Lamar Odom, forcing Odom's deflection out of bounds.

And this happens all the time in basketball. Rather than call a foul every time two players scrum for a loose ball, the refs (rightfully) will just give the ball to whoever gets fouled.

But instant replay makes that impossible.

Under NBA rules, officials can review any out-of-bounds call with under two minutes in the fourth quarter or overtime, allowing them to award possession to the correct team in close, end-of-game situations. In small doses, and with very specific close calls, it works great. But just as NFL refs can't go back and retroactively call someone for pass interference, the refs in Boston last night couldn't say, "It was off Odom, but he was fouled by Rajon Rondo—Lakers ball."

So they had to give the ball to Boston.

And make no mistake: the more often officials go to instant replay on close battles for loose balls, the more fouls they'll have to ignore, and we'll just be compounding the problem. The Lakers deserved the ball on that call Tuesday night, which is why the officials gave it to them in the first place. And then replay took it away.

From a broader standpoint, here's what happened: The NBA's officiating has come under so much criticism—particularly in the Finals—that the insecurity among officials prompted an over-reliance on video that, in the end, essentially forced them to make a bad call.

Such is life for the NBA and its officiating crews these days.

Even when they go to the video for irrefutable proof one way or the other, they can't make the right call. We love this game, but damnit, it sure can be pretty frustrating sometimes.

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UPDATE: I started to respond to the comment below, and realized I may as well just offer some fully-formed thoughts on how to fix these problems. So, without further ado:

Really, the solution is just better officiating. As far as replay is concerned, obviously it’d be nice to give refs leeway to say, “It was off him, but he was fouled, so he gets the ball.” But:

  1. That’s not in the rulebook and would set a confusing precedent for live-game situations
  2. That treats a symptom and, once again, ignores the disease.

What happened last night was a function of refs that were bullied into reviewing calls by coaches and the crowd. The reason they were vulnerable to this is because they’ve done such a crappy job officiating throughout the playoffs that it’s created a general climate of skepticism among NBA fans. And even though the NBA pretends it’s not a problem, the refs are aware of the stigma they face, and I think we’re starting to see some of them get insecure about their own officiating abilities.

The NBA needs to get better refs, and they need to actively avoid pairing referees with teams where they have complicated histories. Last night, even though Bill Kennedy didn’t do anything egregious, you could tell that just about everyone—crowd, teams, refs, even announcers—was extra tense having him officiating. THAT is an easy fix.

As for “better refs,” that’s tougher, but the league first needs to acknowledge there’s a problem, and then they’ve got to dedicate significant resources to fixing it. So far, neither of those has happened, and it’s part of why this continues to be an ongoing subplot each spring.

What happened last night could be taken as an isolated incident with a seemingly obvious fix, but I’d say the entire chain of events—all three reviews, coaches badgering refs to go to the monitors—probes at deeper issues with the current model of officiating.

The NBA needs to fix it, but then, that’s been true for about ten years now. Who knows how many bizarre incidents (like last night’s Odom call) it’ll take before the league really tries to change?

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