The officials did not cost the Spurs Game 6 on Wednesday or the Western Conference finals as a whole. The Thunder won because they scored at an off-the-charts rate game after game, and because they managed to turn San Antonio’s league-leading offense into an average one over the final four games. Case closed.
Two major bang-bang block/charge calls negated six potential San Antonio points in its 107-99 loss on Wednesday, and neither was an egregiously bad ruling. Manu Ginobili’s charge on Kevin Durant with 8:19 left is an impossible call, really. Durant was moving, but the rule actually permits the defensive player in the block/charge situation to move — “to turn slightly” — provided he does not undercut the offensive player, and he establishes position in the dribbler’s path before that dribbler is airborne for a shot or pass.
It is a popular misconception that the defender seeking a charge call must be perfectly still. Bottom line: This is a brutally difficult call at full speed, and the block/charge issue goes well beyond a single high-stakes game. There are too many charge calls, and the NBA has to come up with some way to give offensive players more of the benefit of the doubt — something Josh Levin discussed Wednesday at Slate.
Second, the call with 5:52 left, when Ginobili crashed into James Harden after dishing to Kawhi Leonard for a corner three-pointer, appeared terrible at first glance but looks proper upon review. The charge call against a player who has passed a step earlier has long been a pet peeve of NBA fans because the passer has effectively removed himself from the play and the would-be charge-taker is trying to disrupt a potential shot attempt that no longer exists.
But this play was something different. Ginobili passed to Leonard and then set what was effectively a moving screen on Harden, who was not trying to draw a charge. Harden was actually trying to help on Ginobili and recover to Leonard, and Ginobili shoulder-checked him off that path. Harden embellished the contact, but the call was probably correct.
There were, of course, two other awful calls that went against San Antonio, the first being Russell Westbrook’s uncalled head-clubbing of Leonard under the Thunder basket with 5:05 to go in the third quarter. That missed call cost the Spurs a precious second-chance possession and an opportunity to extend a seven-point lead. The Thunder scored on a Durant dunk on the other end.
Then there was Tony Parker’s phantom foul on Westbrook’s “and-one” layup that gave Oklahoma City a 101-95 lead with 2:46 remaining. Parker swiped at Westbrook but didn’t appear to make contact. The refs whistled him for a foul anyway. Westbrook missed the free throw but got his own rebound, and the Spurs have nobody to blame but themselves for that. The Thunder came up empty on the ensuing possession, but the call and rebound did end up costing San Antonio 20 precious seconds.
Two very bad decisions from the officials. But if you watch the game again, I guarantee that you’ll be able to find a half-dozen other pieces of physical play that went — called or uncalled — the Spurs’ way, and a half-dozen others that went the Thunder’s way. The Spurs got away with some physical shot challenges early the game, for instance. This is the nature of the NBA game; it’s very fast, the floor is crowded and decisions in real time are hard. The calls and non-calls generally even out.
But you know what call actually made me the angriest? This Stephen Jackson technical:
This should be a rule, written or unwritten: If the players and coaches on an opposing team’s bench scream, yell, clap or stomp their feet to distract a nearby shooter, that shooter should be able to make any verbal taunt and/or staring gesture he would like upon making the shot. The Thunder’s bench members, particularly their assistant coaches (though not Maurice Cheeks), are among the most active human sideline distractions in the league. They are actually pretty calm by their standards on this Jackson three-pointer, and they do well to disguise their attempt at distraction by screaming at Thunder defenders to close out and pointing at the spot near Jackson’s feet where those defenders should be. Lazar Hayward also tosses in a nice overhead clap for good measure.
Again: The Thunder assistants have reached Vinny Del Negro levels of proficiency in trying to distract shooters. I can’t be the only one who smiled when Jackson turned and stared them down, and I have no dog in this fight. It’s unclear to me why guys on the bench — players or coaches — are allowed to scream and stomp without penalty, while the targets of their noise-making face referee Joey Crawford’s wrath for turning and yapping a bit.
Swallow the whistle on this one, referees, unless you’re ready to eject Del Negro from every game next season.