The Oklahoma City Thunder have made a habit this postseason of falling behind big then coming back late. They did it against the Lakers in the second round. They did it against the Spurs in the Conference Finals. And they did it in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, when the Thunder fell behind by 13 in the second quarter only to rally for the win in an impressive second half.
Thursday night in Game 2 they were at again, this time digging an even deeper hole, and digging it faster as well. The Thunder missed 11 of their first 12 shots while committing four turnovers, and were behind 18-2 before they got their second basket with four and a half minutes left in the first quarter. The lead got all the way up to 17 a couple of minutes later, at which point Oklahoma City began the long, slow climb back into contention.
In the end, the team came tantalizingly close to coming all the way back. After the first two minutes, this was never even a one possession game -- until Kevin Durant nailed a three-pointer with 37 seconds left to cut Miami's lead down to two points. Next, the Thunder defense did what it needed to do, forcing LeBron James to take a tough three pointer, and Oklahoma City had 12 seconds to try to tie the game, or possibly even take its first lead all night with a three-pointer.
After a timeout, the Thunder got a little sneaky. On inbounds plays late in games, teams invariably run multiple screens for the player they want to get the ball too, in this case, Durant. Durant set up on the baseline to the left of the basket and as James looked for the screens he felt certain were about to arrive, Derek Fisher instead quickly passed the ball to Durant while James' head was turned. It was a terrific piece of misdirection, as OKC successfully got the ball to their star in a dangerous location on the floor with his defender out of position.
The pass caught James off-guard, and he instinctively reached out with his right arm to re-establish contact with Durant once he had gotten re-oriented. Then, as Durant started his move along the baseline, James rode him the entire time with his left arm. As Durant went up for his shot, James seemed to give a little shove to the midsection, and then his arm went on to make contact with Durant's leg as the Thunder star elevated -- but no foul was called despite a variety of contact. The shot came up short, and James grabbed the rebound and sank two free throws to ice the game and tie the series 1-1 with a 100-96 Miami victory.
There are several truisms about NBA officiating that may or may not actually be true. One is that stars get the benefit of calls. A second is that the home team gets the benefit of calls, A third is that refs don't like to decide games and therefore tend to shallow their whistles in the final seconds of close games. In this case, the third truism seems to have clearly overridden the first two -- because stars don't get much bigger than Durant, and the game was played in Oklahoma City, yet the foul call that would have given Durant a chance to tie the game at the line with about 10 seconds left was not forthcoming.
The idea that the officiating crew should make an additional effort to avoid having an undue impact during the final seconds of a close game seems reasonable at first. Let the game be decided on the floor, not at the free throw line, right? But when you think about it, it's really a bit absurd. Shouldn't the referees be applying the rules uniformly throughout? Should they not be striving to have as little impact as possible at all times? The official position of the league in these matters is that there should be no difference in the way the game is called in the first quarter and the way the game is called in the fourth quarter, which would be the correct policy -- unfortunately the reality is very different.
The very notion of swallowing the whistle so as not to affect the outcome is a contradiction. Referees have a job during an NBA game, and that job is to enforce the rules to ensure a fair competition. It may be true that fans would prefer not to watch a parade to the free throw line during the crucial moments of a close game, but there are clearly many ways to alter a game. A missed non-call on a critical possession is just as impactful as any whistle could be -- it's self-evident that the wrong non-call has a much bigger influence on the game than making the correct call, even if the correct call is a foul.
To his credit, Durant did not complain about the non-call with the media afterwards. He still got a good look, and he no doubt thinks he should have made the shot, foul or no foul. But LeBron is a big, strong guy, he made a lot of contact with Durant, and there's little question that he altered the shot.
The situation is a little complicated by the location on the floor where this all transpired. The same contact on the perimeter is a foul every time, but referees let defenders get away with more in the post. Durant caught the pass about 12 feet from the basket and dribbled in to the edge of the paint where he put up the shot. So were the refs applying perimeter rules or post rules? Either way it was a foul, but it was marginally more justifiable if you consider the play a post move.
The Thunder had plenty of chances to peg the lead back without the benefit of that final whistle. Far and away the best free throw shooting team in the NBA during the regular season, they missed seven free throws Thursday night. They shot just 9-26 from beyond the three-point arc on the game. They missed numerous good chances to cut further into the lead in the fourth quarter. And of course, they have no one but themselves to blame for that 18-2 hole they dug to start the game.
Even with all of that going against them, the Thunder were one blown non-call away from completing their comeback with 10 seconds remaining. The game may not have been decided at the free throw line, but you can't say that the referees had no impact.