NBA denies Rockets’ protest over uncounted James Harden dunk, Spurs’ win stands

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Spurs 135, Rockets 133 – nearly a week later – final.

Houston protested the Dec. 3 loss on account of a made James Harden dunk that officials ruled missed then wouldn’t allow to be challenged.

NBA release:

The NBA announced today that Commissioner Adam Silver has denied the Houston Rockets protest of their 135-133 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 3, 2019, following receipt by the league office of submissions from both teams and the completion of its investigation.

In the protest, the Rockets argued that the officials misapplied the playing rules by failing to grant a Coach’s Challenge in connection with James Harden’s fourth quarter dunk, and that this error had a clear impact on the outcome of the game by depriving the team of two points.  While agreeing that the referees misapplied the rules, Commissioner Silver determined that the Rockets had sufficient time to overcome the error during the remainder of the fourth quarter and two subsequent overtime periods and thus the extraordinary remedy of granting a game protest was not warranted.

In addition, the league announced today that it has disciplined all three referees from the game for misapplying the Coach’s Challenge rule.

With 7:50 remaining in the fourth quarter and the score 102-89 in favor of Houston, Harden stole the ball and converted an uncontested dunk.  The ball was dunked with such force that, as it cleared the net, the ball was propelled around the basket and upward, creating an initial appearance that it was not a successful field goal.  Houston then called a timeout, and the officiating crew conferenced to discuss the play.

After deliberation, the crew informed the Houston coaching staff that a basket interference violation had been called on Harden, and Houston asked for a Coach’s Challenge.  This request was denied by the officials because more than 30 seconds had elapsed from the start of the timeout.  But the 30-second time limit for Coach’s Challenges only applies when the challenge arises during a mandatory timeout or a timeout called by the opposing team.  Because Houston called the timeout in this case, it was entitled to challenge the basket interference call upon being informed of it by the game officials.

If the Coach’s Challenge requested by Houston had been properly granted, instant replay would have shown that Harden’s dunk was a successful field goal.

As a follow-up to the NBA’s investigation of this matter, the NBA will work with the Competition Committee to develop additional procedures to help prevent the situation with Harden’s made basket from occurring again.

Did the Rockets get screwed? Yes.

Does the NBA acknowledging that the referees misapplied the challenge rule but still not granting Houston’s protest really rub salt into the wound? Heck yes.

Does this prove the Rockets fans and fans correct in their theories the league is out to get them? No. This was a randomly blown call that could have happened to any team.

Was the missed call the only reason Houston lost to San Antonio? No. The Rockets were up 13 with 7:50 left. Their collapse went far beyond this single play.

Would Houston have won in regulation had the dunk counted? There’s no way to know. The game would have played out differently with those two points on the board.

The NBA’s only upheld protest since 1982 came in 2007-08, when Shaquille O’Neal was disqualified with just five fouls (shy of the actual foul-out trigger of six) in the Hawks’ win over the Heat. The teams replayed the final 51.9 seconds, and Atlanta still won.

The league is extremely reluctant to grant protests. But I’m uncomfortable with the reasoning here. Yes, 7:50 would have been a long time to re-play. However, the league essentially ruled calls matter more late than early in games. What ammo for anyone who argues only the last couple minutes of an NBA game are worth watching.

This also shouldn’t have required a coach’s challenge in the first place. It’s common practice to review during the next stoppage whether a made shot near the arc was a 2-pointer or 3-pointer. This easily could have been checked under the same logic. Hopefully, the new procedures the NBA mentioned at the end of its release will address that.

That’ll be no solace to the Rockets. For them, this just stinks. I don’t blame them one bit for resenting ever part of this entire process.