CHICAGO – An alternative dateline for this post would be TIP CITY, except there’s no such place, no parallel metropolis to the NBA’s much ballyhooed LOB CITY.
Everyone’s been to Lob City, right … the site of literally hundreds of highlight alley-oop slam dunks at Staples Center and elsewhere? It’s simple yet exhilarating stuff: Ball gets delivered near or at the rim, grabbed in flight by a teammate and flushed down for a swift and manly two points.
But a play that was mechanically similar – except for the flushing part – got waved off to thwart the Chicago Bulls’ hopes in a 119-118 overtime loss to the streaking Denver Nuggets at United Center.
Down a point with 7.1 seconds left, the Bulls had to settle for Marco Belinelli‘s shot from the left side as their last, best chance. The shot looked to be short – until Joakim Noah reached up and tipped it through.
Pandemonium ensued. The game clock showed 1.7 seconds. And then, the celebration went dark. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau exploded, Bulls players anguished and the arena got cranky-loud as the referees, given the chance to review the play during a 20-second timeout called by Denver, invalidated the basket as offensive interference by Noah.
Chicago’s beef was two-fold. With 47 seconds left in overtime, Nuggets center Kosta Koufas had cleaned up a running layup from Ty Lawson that, to some, still appeared to be dancing indecisively on the rim. That tip put Denver up 116-115 – and it was not reviewed.
The reason given? There was no call on the floor of offensive interference. Therefore, nothing to review, per NBA rules.
The question Thibodeau and the Bulls maintained through their ire? The refs didn’t call anything in the moment on Noah’s tip/violation. Yet they did review that play during Denver’s brief timeout, as the arena’s P.A. announcer informed the crowd: “Goaltending is the call on the floor.”
Even that was off because, as an offensive player, Noah couldn’t technically have committed goaltending.
Here’s Thibodeau pointing out what he saw as the discrepancy in how the two plays were handled and ruled:
“I don’t understand it one bit. Koufos’ play, I asked why it wasn’t reviewed. … Clearly, it was on the rim, and they told me that because they didn’t make the call, they couldn’t review it. If that is the rule, then that is the rule. I thought we had the video stuff to make sure we got it right. Then down on the other end … they are tough calls for bang-bang plays, but I don’t understand why one is reviewable and the other one isn’t. After watching the replay, and I watched it when it occurred, they never made the call on that either.”
Good luck putting that toothpaste back in the tube. A league spokesman said that the very fact the officials reviewed the Noah play meant that they had something to review. Sort of a reverse-Catch 22, or something.
Here is Denver coach George Karl‘s take:
“There’s no question it was goaltending. The ball was going to hit the rim. I was too far away to see the play on Kosta’s tip-in shot.”
Players are divided, in poor position to see what happened on the two plays, or both. Denver’s Andre Iguodala said of the Noah play: “It happened so fast, it was hard to see. There was one angle on the replay, I thought you could tell it was going to at least make the rim.”
Chicago’s Jimmy Butler sounded more resigned when he said: “It was a goaltending. That is what they called. It’s not like we can change it.”
Then there was Noah, who went from disappointed to puzzled to lathered up as he repeatedly was asked about it:
“It’s very disappointing. I feel like you play this game so hard… Maybe I don’t understand the rules or something. I just don’t understand how you can review my tip-in but two plays before that you can’t review the other one. There’s got to be consistency. It’s just frustrating how things like that can happen. I know the refs are doing the best that they can in that situation, but it cost us the game today.”
So, Noah was asked, they ruled offensive interference in the moment?
“No, they called good. They called basket. So I didn’t understand. I thought the rule was, if they called it good … Maybe. I don’t know, I’m not sure, I don’t know the rules. They gave us two points. Then they went to review it after they called the basket good.”
And about that Koufos play…
“I just don’t understand,” Noah said. “Why wouldn’t you review that one. That’s what’s frustrating. How are you going to review [mine] but you can’t review the one two plays before that. It’s [bleep], man. It’s [bleep].”
There’s no way Noah or anyone from either side deserves a fine for head-scratching out loud over the crazy sequence. For the record, the NBA did add a rule this season for situations in which referees aren’t certain “whether a goaltending or basket interference violation was correctly called.”
The procedure to be used is:
- Review will only occur on goaltending and basket interference violation calls.
- Video review will take place ONLY in the last two minutes of the fourth period and all overtime periods.
- Review must take place immediately after the preceding violation call.
There’s the rub: If the refs didn’t call a violation – as they asserted on the Koufos play – there should have been nothing to review. Once they reviewed it, though, there must have been a call – which the Bulls dispute – or they can’t have reviewed it.
There is, however, another issue in play. Let’s face it, the Bulls were claiming that the policeman didn’t actually witness them speeding – without acknowledging whether they were or not.
Of greater interest here at Hang Time Headquarters – and in my role as pool reporter immediately after the game – was how Noah’s completion of a ball delivered to the rim differs from all those alley-oops that get thrown down, even though the ball is perilously close to or over the cylinder when Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan or dozens of other guys snag and slam it.
Do dunks enjoy favored status over tips? Would Noah have been fine if he had been in position to catch and dunk Belinelli’s “shot”? Who’s to say it wasn’t a pass in the first place?
NBA media policies do allow for a pool reporter to speak to the refs after a game involving a pivotal ruling such as this. But they allow for only one question to be asked – first relayed in writing to the crew chief, then asked in person.
One question. Even though there were three or four good ones hanging over this controversial ending.
With Bulls media boss Tim Hallam as go-between, I was able to meet with the referees in their dressing room. I put my question to veteran Ken Mauer: What’s the difference in ruling between an alley-oop pass that is delivered to the rim and dunked, compared to the ball that Noah deflected into the basket?
“There is no difference. If we deem the ball in its descent has a chance to score, and therefore it’s in the cylinder, it’s either offensive basket interference or it’s goaltending. That’s it.”
In other words, all those lob passes that seem headed right toward the rim – many even seem like they might be viable shots of their own – supposedly aren’t to be grabbed and slammed. If they are, they’re supposed to be waved off and ruled violations, regardless of the oohing and aahing in the stands.
Guess you can judge for yourselves if that’s how those plays routinely get officiated. Again, those lob passes don’t have to actually be in the cylinder when touched – they simply have to be judged to have a “chance to score.” Think about how often you’ve seen one taken off the scoreboard.