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This crucial Warriors-Rockets game was nearly decided by a cartoonish missed call

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Luckily, James Harden’s game-winner rendered it meaningless, but now did the refs blow this so badly?

Yes, the Warriors and Rockets played what may have been the best game of the season on Thursday night. And yes, that game ended with James Harden drilling a ridiculous, double-contested 29-foot bomb to lift Houston — short its other All-Star point guard — to a one-point overtime win over Golden State.

But we cannot forget how poor officiating just before that Harden game-winner nearly cost Houston a chance at winning this game in the first place. This was the worst missed call many fans have seen in a very long time.

The sanctity of the game of basketball deserves better than what we saw on Thursday night.

Kevin Durant didn’t have just one foot out of bounds when he saved the ball before it made its way into Stephen Curry’s hands. He took three steps out of bounds along the baseline before knocking the ball back in. Klay Thompson recovered the 50/50 ball and threw it to Curry, who took a step in and knocked down an open mid-range jump shot to give the Warriors a 134-132 lead with 23.1 seconds left in overtime.

Nobody could believe it at the time, especially not the Rockets:

Had Curry’s shot served as the game-winner, this missed call would have been the story of the morning. Instead, Harden’s heroics are dominating the headlines, and rightfully so. He recorded his fifth straight 40-point game, vaulting himself into the MVP conversation and the Rockets back into the playoff picture along the way. His game-winner was one giant Ball Don’t Lie message.

But we must hold our dear officials to higher standards. And in order to do so, we cannot gloss over their missteps, especially ones so egregious as this.

“I could believe [they missed the call] because the refs were missing a lot tonight,” Durant said after the game. “They miss a lot in general, so you can easily fool them.”

Here’s another angle of the play, including Harden’s disbelief that such an obvious out of bounds call — three steps! — could go uncalled:

We have a few questions:

1. Who messed up?

Tre Maddox, John Goble, and Tony Brown were the three officials on the call, and it appeared Maddox (No. 73) was the one closest to the play. He’s in his eighth season as an NBA referee, according to the NBA referee’s website. Previously, he was a G-League and Pac-12 official.

This was his 417th NBA game. Basketball Reference has a ton of stats on his officiating record over the years.

Ironically, Maddox and Durant have history. Last March, Maddox tossed Durant from a game against the Milwaukee Bucks after Durant shouted “CALL THE F****G FOUL YOU B***H-ASS MOTHERF****R.

2. Why wasn’t this call reversed upon review?

Officials are allowed to go to the replay monitor to review borderline calls in the last two minutes of regulation and overtime, so why didn’t they do so here?

The simple answer is because the Rockets didn’t call timeout after Curry’s made bucket and ultimately hit the go-ahead shot anyway.

The more complicated answer: reviews are only triggered when the officials actually make an out-of-bounds call, and not when they keep a play going that should’ve been blown dead. Via the league’s instant replay guidelines:

Referees can only initiate a review on a called out-of-bounds play (for example, not one where an out-of-bounds might have occurred) and only those involving doubt as to which player caused the ball to go out (not those, for example, where a player stepped on the line).

This obvious missed call failed both of those tests, and since the game continued on after the mistake, the officials couldn’t go back to retroactively dock the Warriors points.

3. What happens to those officials now?

Surely they should get punished for such an obvious failure at their jobs, right? They will, but probably not in ways most will notice.

The most obvious way will be on the league’s Last Two Minute reports, released the day after for any game that was within three points in the last two minutes and overtime. Surely the league will admit that the call was missed, note it, and share it with the public. (You can view archived pages here).

In past years at least, officials have been fined for missed calls, albeit not publicly. Rarely are any public suspensions announced, though it did happen in 2017 when referee Courtney Kirkland bumped heads with Warriors guard Shaun Livingston.

There is also a system of accountability and evaluation for officials used to determine future assignments, as the referees themselves admit:

As we reported in October, the league estimates they get about 92 percent of calls right. They have also revamped and expanded its training systems for future officials to help adjust to the speed of the modern game.

So it’s wrong to say that these three officials won’t face any repercussions for blowing such a crucial call so obviously. The difference is that the accountability may not be as public as it would be for a player or coach.