The NBA Made the Best of a No-Win Situation by Denying the Rockets’ Protest

  • The league denied the Rockets’ protest of a loss to the Spurs last week.
  • Houston’s motion took issue with referees’ mishandling of an uncounted dunk by James Harden.
  • While the Rockets have a right to be furious, the league issued the only decision that makes sense.

The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs won’t be going back in time after all.

The NBA on Monday issued its ruling on the Rockets’ protest of their double-overtime loss to the Spurs last week, in which a dunk by James Harden wasn’t counted by the officials.

Commissioner Adam Silver explained the reasoning behind the league’s decision in a statement.

The only silver lining to be gleaned from Houston’s unrequited request to replay the game’s last seven minutes and 50 seconds? That the league has “disciplined all three referees from the game for misapplying the Coach’s Challenge rule.”

Needless to say, that’s not an outcome likely to yield much solace from the Rockets, who have justifiable reason to believe a crucial win against a Western Conference opponent was essentially stolen from them.

An Obvious and Avoidable Gaffe

The most frustrating aspect of this controversy is that it should have been easily avoided. Anyone paying close attention to Harden’s breakaway dunk was able to see the ball snap back above the rim after he powerfully slammed it through the basket.

The resulting problems were threefold: Players from both teams continued playing once the ball bounced off the rim and back to the floor; the referees incorrectly called a goaltending violation on Harden after deliberating during a timeout immediately thereafter; and when Houston subsequently called for a Coach’s Challenge, the officiating crew misapplied rules that prevented the play from being subject to further review.

While the gaffe that prompted this ordeal was certainly avoidable, it’s not much different from several others officials make throughout the course of a game that go undetected. Glaring mistakes by referees, unfortunately, are simply a part of the game.

Where the Rockets have real room for outrage is the misapplication of Coach’s Challenge rules following Harden’s uncounted dunk. The officials didn’t grant a challenge because more than 30 seconds had elapsed between Houston calling a timeout and when Mike D’Antoni alerted them to a challenge. But the 30-second rule is only meant to be invoked during a mandatory timeout or if the opposing team calls for time, not when the one challenging the play does.

The Best of Multiple Bad Outcomes

It bears stressing that Silver copped to the referees’ mistake for not allowing the Rockets to challenge the basket interference call on Harden. In that vein, Houston’s protest was successful.

But what he considered a bridge too far was replaying the time remaining in the game after Harden’s dunk at a future date. Considering the most recent analogy for that “extraordinary” measure, Silver’s decision makes sense.

On Dec. 19, 2007, Shaquille O’Neal was called for a sixth foul with 51.9 seconds left in the Miami Heat’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks. But the scorer’s table had previously made the mistake of issuing a foul to O’Neal that had been called on one of his teammates, meaning he was disqualified from the game with just five fouls.

The Heat protested and the league obliged, with Miami and Atlanta meeting to play the final 51.9 seconds of the December game before a matchup on March 9. One problem: O’Neal had already been traded to the Phoenix Suns.

The league’s justification for opting against a similar replay – that the Rockets had ample opportunity to make up for the gaffe over the game’s ensuing 17:50, including two overtimes – is sound. Plus, opening the newly implemented Coach’s Challenge to the Pandora’s box of protests would have set an unnecessarily complicated precedent.

Don’t tell that to Houston, though. The Rockets have every right to be furious, even if the league ultimately made the best of a bad situation.

This article was edited by Gerelyn Terzo.

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