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Posted: Wednesday December 31, 2008 10:27AM; Updated: Wednesday December 31, 2008 1:18PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

Blazers' power-play goal latest sign of frazzled referees

Story Highlights

Portland Trail Blazers scored a basked with six men on the floor on Tuesday

The referees failed to notice the extra player and allowed the hoop to count

The Blazers went on to beat the Boston Celtics by just five points

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Greg Oden and Travis Outlaw
Greg Oden (far left) was one of six Portland players on the court for a crucial basket in the Blazers' win over the Celtics on Tuesday night.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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PORTLAND -- This might have been the worst official decision I have ever seen at a major sporting event.

I have seen criminal verdicts made by judges of boxing, more than once I've heard of an extra down awarded accidentally to a college football team, and baseball umpires have infuriated me more often than I can remember.

But a new threshold was established here Tuesday when the Portland Trail Blazers accidentally put six men on the court against the Boston Celtics. The sixth man scored a basket. The referees acknowledged that he should not have been allowed on the floor. And then they permitted his basket to stand.

In other words, the officials rewarded a team for the most brazen form of cheating.

"I thought that was a disgrace,'' said Celtics All-Star guard Ray Allen. "I've never experienced anything like that since I've been in the NBA. To lose two points like that, it is a disgrace.''

The Blazers obviously were not trying to cheat anybody. Afterward they were embarrassed to have left a sixth man on the floor.

Inbounding from a timeout with 10.1 seconds remaining in the first half, they moved the ball around so deftly that the Celtics couldn't cover all of them. (For good reason.) With 3.0 seconds to go, Greg Oden passed to Travis Outlaw cutting to the basket for a layup. Boston forward Kevin Garnett immediately turned to a referee and pointed out the six Blazers, none of whom tried to escape. They remained on the court for all to count while referees Mike Callahan, Rodney Mott and Zach Zarba discussed what should be done.

They issued a technical foul against the Blazers, which was converted by Allen to give Boston a 45-40 lead going into halftime.

Outlaw's layup was permitted to stand, however. Apparently the referees claimed they had no other option, as the result of their own failure to notice the extra Blazer before the basket was scored.

"If we would have caught the six men on the court before the made goal then there would have been no score,'' Callahan told a pool reporter following the game. "We would have called a technical foul on Portland and stopped play. After the technical foul shot [by the Celtics], Portland would have inbounded the ball as they were in possession before the stoppage.''

This event is the harshest sign yet that NBA referees are frazzled. Not all of them, of course: I believe there are some officials who would have come to their senses and made the right call, regardless of how the particular rule may or may not be written. They would have done the right thing today at the risk of whatever their bosses in the league office might have said about them tomorrow.

Can you imagine an NFL team scoring a touchdown with 12 men on the field? The points would not be allowed to stand. When a team cheats -- and putting an extra man into play is cheating, whether it's accidental or not -- the points should not count.

"They said you couldn't correct the play, which I still disagree with,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But the problem was we called around, we called the league, and they didn't have the answer either.''

A trusted member of the Celtics told me that when Boston captain Paul Pierce complained about the injustice of the decision, one of the referees raised his whistle to his lips -- threatening Pierce with a technical.

Eventually the Celtics lost 91-86. They were trailing by 87-86 with 22.6 seconds remaining, which is when they began committing fouls to regain possession and the game was lost.

"Oh, that was awful,'' said Rivers of the Blazers power play, "and it actually came back into play, those two points. It absolutely had an effect. Our guys were complaining the rest of the game about it. I kept telling them you've got to get over that. But that was a doozy. There's no excuse for that to happen.''

Rivers went out of his way to add that the Blazers deserved to win the game because they had played with more ambition and energy than his team. To their discredit, the Celtics wasted a lot of energy worrying and complaining about one bad play.

But make no mistake. It was a very bad play. And I don't think it should be taken lightly.

I write this in the early morning hours without knowing exactly how the rule is written regarding this particular infraction. What I do know is that the rule in this case is irrelevant. This is a black-and-white case of right and wrong, and I wonder if the referees got it so badly wrong because they have been mismanaged for so long a time that they can't begin to tell right from wrong anymore. I wonder if they're so worried about looking over their shoulders that they can't see what is in front of them.

The first rule of basketball is that each team shall play with an equal number of players. To what good is a referee if he or she cannot uphold this simple justice?

Anyone can make the mistake of failing to count the players; the issue lies in what these game officials did next while trying to satisfy their supervisors. Am I making too much of what might have been a simple error in judgment? Or am I right to wonder whether the league has so convoluted its referees that they no longer feel empowered to distinguish right from wrong?

 
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