The Los Angeles Lakers recorded a 119-108 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night despite suiting up just eight players, but it's the five players who were on the floor when the clock struck zero that are making headlines.
With 3:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, center Robert Sacre recorded his sixth foul of the game on a C.J. Miles field-goal attempt. Sacre, in typical situations, would have been disqualified for the rest of the night.
However, the Lakers had no one to replace him. Chris Kaman already fouled out, Jordan Farmar and Nick Young suffered in-game injuries, and the remaining four players on the Lakers' active roster were inactive due to injury or rest.
As Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News noted, the bizarre situation allowed Sacre to stay in the game thanks to a seldom-used NBA rule that requires both teams to have five players on the floor:
Per NBA rules: If team has only 5 players and one of them gets six fouls, they stay in the game & receive a technical— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) February 6, 2014
According to the NBA rulebook, Rule 3I states that no team may be reduced to fewer than five players. If a player, like Sacre, receives his sixth foul and his team lacks a replacement player, "said player shall remain in the game and shall be charged with a personal and team foul."
The Lakers were also charged with a team technical foul, and they would be subject to additional technicals should Sacre have picked up any more personal fouls. Had Sacre or another Laker been injured or fouled out of the game, the next most recent player disqualified would have been allowed to reenter the game.
Kaman was the last player to foul out before Sacre, and he didn't exactly look like he was raring to go for game action, per Escoot:
This has got to be a top 3 moment in the 2013-14 Lakers season. pic.twitter.com/uu8vjZm1v5— Escoot (@Escoot) February 6, 2014
The same rules would apply, meaning the reentering player would be charged with both a personal and technical for every foul. There is just one exception: illness. The NBA allows for an ill player to leave the floor during play and be replaced without a technical being assessed.
Thankfully, none of these crazy scenarios played out. Sacre stayed in the contest, finished without incident and avoided racking up technicals like mid-2000s Rasheed Wallace. After the game, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said his next option beyond keeping Sacre in the game was subbing the injured Farmar back in as a dummy player, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:
D'Antoni said he trusted Sacre not to foul too much for more techs. Next option: Farmar just stand there. D'Antoni didn't want to use Nash.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) February 6, 2014
In a game between two teams feverishly clawing their way to rock bottom, the Lakers' situation was hilarious in a kind of tragic way. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are on the roster. All three are likely future Hall of Famers, but their aging bodies are so broken that all they could do was helplessly watch. Gasol even managed to find humor in the whole situation:
I've never seen this situation before!! Did anybody know about this rule!? #LakersvsCavs— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) February 6, 2014
For the Lakers, though, this is actually no laughing matter. Their roster is now depleted beyond the point of recognition, and they have to travel to Philadelphia on Friday for a game against the Sixers. It's totally unclear who is healthy enough to play, who isn't and whether the Lakers will have enough time to rectify their lack of depth by adding a player.
Los Angeles has only 14 players on its active roster, so a signing is possible. But if D'Antoni eschews another new addition, at least we all know now that he'll never have to go without a fifth player on the floor.