With this amazing Courtney Lee buzzer beater, the Memphis Grizzlies stole a critical win over the Sacramento Kings in a game they trailed by 24 points. There are two stories here, and both must be told.
How the heck did Lee get open?
Before we get to the rules stuff, let's give credit to the Grizzlies for running a killer inbounds play and forcing the Kings to make a fatal mistake. Memphis started by lining up in some sort of box on the far side of the court. Two players ran to the near corner to clear the lane for what looks like a Lee backscreen for Marc Gasol.
This makes sense. Gasol is a tall person and putting tall people near the basket for lobs is usually the only way to score in 0.3 seconds. The Kings surely expected this and thus had no plans to switch every screen, as many teams do in this situation. Their worst-case scenario clearly was having a smaller player on Gasol in a lob situation.
But Memphis anticipated that by running the same action back with a twist. Instead of going to the rim, Gasol turned and set a backscreen for Lee.
And the Kings completely botched the coverage. This is when you want to switch everything to prevent any sort of opening, since both Rudy Gay and Jason Thompson are taller than Lee. But instead, Gay is caught far behind the play and Thompson sticks right with Gasol.
It's an egregious breakdown, and the only explanation is that the two players took away different talking points from Mike Malone's huddle. Gay is defending this sequence like he expects Thompson to switch. Thompson obviously believes he was told to stay on his man. Only Malone knows what the plan should have been.
But credit the Grizzlies for a great wrinkle, one that caused so much of this confusion.
And now, the bigger question:
Should the shot have counted?
Kings fans will surely be crying foul about this screenshot for days.
That shows the ball in Lee's hands after he brought it down and just as he's about to release again. The clock, stuck at 0.3 seconds before Lee caught it, still hasn't started.
Is there reason to believe the Grizzlies benefited from a friendly scoreboard operator? Perhaps.
At the same time, that operator is human and can't reasonably be expected to push whatever button is needed to start the clock at literally the exact split second that Lee catches the ball. Realistically, 0.3 seconds isn't actually 0.3 seconds, but rather something more like 0.4 or 0.5 seconds. The only way to change that is to have tracking devices on players' bodies that automatically start the clock when the ball touches them.
And while Lee's wind-up was a bit gradual given the circumstances, he's allowed to catch and finish in that amount of time. Per NBA rules, as long as there is at least 0.3 seconds on the clock, a player can secure possession and shoot without having to tip the ball in. This is commonly known as the "Trent Tucker Rule," so named after the former Knicks guard stunned the Bulls by catching and shooting a three with one-tenths of a second left.
The other possible gripe: Ryan Hollins actually tipped the inbounds pass, which of course should have started the clock. The answer there? Man, this is tough to tell.
Hollins certainly gets very close, but I don't see an obvious change of direction in the ball's path. Maybe it's there, but how can an official tell definitively. The pass looked off target because Carter threw it off target, not because Hollins touched it. I can't blame officials for ruling that's too close to call.
In the end, it's nice to see Lee get redemption for missing a very similar opportunity in Game 2 of the 2009 Finals. As for Kings fans ... worry about your team blowing big leads, as they've done in two straight games.