The Jazz and Suns played perhaps the NBA season’s most compelling game this season.
The referees ended it in the most uncompelling of ways: a group of stripes watched a replay monitor courtside, decided a foul they called wasn’t one, and ended the double-overtime barn burner 140-137, in favor of Phoenix.
Here’s the question: Was it a foul?
The referees, represented by crew chief Zach Zarba:
“In our opinion, there was clear and conclusive evidence that Durant made legal contact to the basketball blocking the shot first. That’s why the challenge was ruled successful.”
Was off hand contact along with shooting hand and landing space reviewed during the challenge?
“Yes, we reviewed both of those aspects of the play. But the clear and conclusive evidence that Durant got to the basketball first was the key here. Making everything after it marginal in our opinion.”
Kevin Durant, via the Associated Press:
“It was ridiculous to even call that. I knew I blocked the shot and I knew I didn’t touch him at all. But that’s just how the game is. It was a quick play for her, so I’m sure she wanted to review it and get the right call. I’m glad they were able to call to Secaucus and get it right.”
“I thought so the whole time. I’m getting ready to shoot three free throws but, I guess not. I think he got ball, but he hit my left arm, and that’s what I thought they called foul. Then I saw the replay, and I didn’t even know if they’re looking at body contact, or I started looking to see if I was inbounds in general. I mean, that’s the decision they made, I have nothing for it. But it’s obviously annoying to lose a game like that.”
“I thought (the original foul call) was a good call. I mean, there’s two guys running at Lauri full speed. One doesn’t let him land, and I feel like hit him on the arm a little bit. I don’t know what to say, they reversed the call. They usually never do that. ... I think that’s three points and a look (for a flagrant foul) for not letting Lauri land.”
“Christmas is coming up, Andy. I’d like to keep my money. Ask me after Christmas.”
I think it’s really, really close.
Zarba is correct: by the league’s rulebook, once Durant touches the ball up top, the wrist contact that comes after is negated. And I think he is right to say that the ball contact came before the wrist contact.
The bigger question, to me, is what happens down below. There are two elements here: Does Durant land in Markkanen’s landing space? And does his off-hand contact with Markkanen constitute a foul?
The answer to the first question is so tough, because Markkanen is twisting and fading out of bounds — it’s not the typical landing space for a jump shooter. Markkanen’s feet don’t land on Durant’s, but clearly the latter’s feet are in a spot where it’s normally dangerous. But without contact at the feet level, referees typically won’t call it.
I was talking to a coach last week who said that was one of his problems with how the game is officiated now: while the landing space flagrant foul is supposed to prevent defenders from getting in the landing space of a shooter, players are now hunting that flagrant foul by purposefully landing on defenders’ feet — ironically leading to more jump-shot sprained ankles than if it weren’t a flagrant in the first place. Markkanen saves his ankles here... but doesn’t save the game. That shouldn’t have to be a choice.
Clearly, Durant’s hand is on Markkanen’s torso through the catch and Markkanen starting to begin his upward motion, though he removes it late. The question here, by the rulebook is: does Durant’s hand affect Markkanen’s rhythm, balance, or natural shot motion?
This, frankly, is an impossible question to know for sure — it’s one reason the rulebook should probably be changed. But to me? Markkanen looks very off balance while taking this shot, which is why he lands the way he does. I think there’s a really good argument that Durant’s hand to the torso contributed to Markkanen being off balance.
And clearly, Zarba has no idea about the hand to torso ... that comes way before the potential block up top, but Zarba, in his response, calls only the contact after the block marginal. What about the contact before then?
The surprising thing to me is that they overturned it. Collins is right: typically, if referees can find any reason to uphold the original call, they do. On this overturn, it seemed like the opposite. Zarba and crew were looking for reasons to overturn the foul, and missed at least one good reason to instead keep the whistle.