In a sport where so much is left to chance, the NBA’s adoption of official review must've been seen as a welcome development indeed by fans, whose most caustic critiques seem permanently reserved for irreversible referee wrongs.
If you’re Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers, however, not even the facts yielded by courtside cameras could prevent a heartbreaking 109-105 Game 1 loss.
That's a huge problem.
First, a quick review: With just over 20 seconds remaining and his team down 107-105, Paul looked to dribble around a pair of perimeter defenders along the right sideline, only to have the ball swiped away by Draymond Green.
After signaling the ball had gone off of Green, the officiating crew—heeding a league rule stating certain plays can be reviewed in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and in overtime—did its due diligence.
The ball had indeed gone off Paul. Reversal made, the Warriors regained possession.
There’s just one small problem: CP3 was clearly fouled prior to deflecting the ball out of bounds. Unfortunately, the letter of the law states an official cannot review anything beyond the question at hand.
To its credit, the league acknowledged the facts of the matter, while adhering to the letter of the law.
For basketball fans, the end result is problematic—just another arrow in the quiver of critics who argue the game’s referees boast an outsized degree of influence.
For a Clippers team now devoid of its home-court advantage, it could prove downright apocalyptic.
Making the controversy even more poignant, Adam Silver, the NBA’s newly anointed commissioner, has had this very scenario on his radar screen for a while now.
You can read the full history and explanation of the NBA’s instant-replay review policy here.
It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance to appreciate the regularity with which the league—aided in lockstep tandem by technology’s inevitable march—has sought to enhance and improve its capacity for accuracy.
Indeed, if logic alone weren’t enough to compel as much, Silver’s No. 1 rule-related priority for the 2014-15 season must be to fine-tune the review process.
Official review’s raison d'etre is, if nothing else, the ability to right the wrongs of human error at the precise moment when the outcome of the call matters most.
A two-point game with fewer than 20 seconds remaining would seem to fit that description.
Obviously, recalibrating the scope of the rule to include action before the play in question demands a statute of limitations.
Indeed, one could easily imagine a full 24-second possession where three or four transgressions were missed. At that point, how does the officiating crew determine which trip, travel or bump sparked the chain reaction in question?
As with any rule change, it’s incumbent upon Silver to improve the rule, not make it perfect—an impossible task to begin with, after all.
Not even the three best basketball referees in the world can be expected to catch every pump fake and pivot foot, parse the jockeying and jostling for position with 100 percent omniscience.
But if video technology is going to be used at all, it might as well be used toward the best possible outcome—in this case, a fair ruling that strikes a balance between accuracy on the one hand, and a timely conclusion on the other.
Instead, fans are being forced to wade not through highlights and strategies, but the inevitable meta-critique part and parcel with poorly timed officiating blunders.
In a sport where the limits of space and movement demand a more doting brand of officiating, any chance referees have to reverse a call—and, in the case of Paul, right a wrong—ought to be informed not only by the best technology available, but the best legislation as well.
Somewhat predictably, perhaps, the reaction of Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was more diplomatic than demonstrable.
“Do you want me to get fined? I mean, come on,” Rivers retorted when asked by a reporter whether the officiating crew had called the game too tightly, before wading in as far as his wallet would allow. “I do think the hype had an impact on how the game was called. There’s no doubt about that.”
The code, of course, couldn’t be more obvious—“Do you want me to get fined?” being a way for a coach to state his or her grievances without really stating them at all.
At the same time, Rivers understands that, with 18.9 seconds remaining and with Paul missing a pair of crucial free throws soon after, having the call reversed would hardly have guaranteed a victory.
Whether Game 1’s officiating snafu comes back to haunt the Clips, only time will tell. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether a fairer outcome might’ve been had if only time had only been allowed to tell.