With just under 40 seconds left in Game 3 and the Celtics down five, Lakers big man Lamar Odom had apparently rebounded a missed Paul Pierce free throw. But as Odom came down with the ball, Boston guard Rajon Rondo dashed onto the scene and inserted an arm. The ball spurted out of bounds.
Odom raised his hands in a gesture that said “it wasn’t me!”
Which is how it was called. Yet ... the referees exercised their right to review the play, to see if in fact the ball may have gone off Odom. The referee crew reviewed the video, as did the enormous audience watching on television.
In real time, nobody in the arena was certain about anything, but in slow motion it was plain as day. The ball was off Odom.
But only, as everyone at home saw clearly, after Rondo fouled Odom by pulling his hand off the ball.
The referees could not, by rule, call that potentially game-changing and obvious foul. Instant replay is their silver bullet to avoid the embarrassment of everyone at home knowing far more than they do, but they are limited in their use of it, and are only allowed to review the call that was made. The call that was made was out of bounds. Video showed that call would rightly go the Celtics’ way -- the ball had gone off Odom. The foul that was obvious to millions would be ignored. Celtics ball.
Laker coach Phil Jackson says he knew that the instant replay rule was always going to invite this kind of trouble: “Those are the things that we questioned immediately when they brought in the rule, if you're going to see a lot of things happening now on this type of thing where if it's a 3-point play, a guy might have stepped out of bounds and no one saw it and he comes back in and now you're looking at is it a 3-point shot or not, and you miss the fact that he stepped out of bounds, what are you going to do to rectify the fact the officials missed a call? So they made the decision that we can't do that, we can't make the adjustment.”
The league's executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson acknowledges what he called a clear foul by Rondo, but defends the system where such a foul can not be made via video review -- which is used only for simple tasks such as who touched the ball last, whether the shot clock had expired, or whether a player stepped on the 3-point line. More complex issues like fouls are not part of the system, by design.
"Judgment calls are not part of the system," he explains. "Once you begin reviewing judgment calls, which in basketball there are many, you put yourself on a very slippery slope in terms of what could be reviewed, and ultimately the number of reviews that could take place that would make it unweildly.
"We anticipated that in some instances we would have a situation like we had with Rondo and Odom, but the decision was made to keep the system narrow, and excluding judgment calls. As it stands right now, under certain instant replay triggers, for instance by example, a made basket at the end of the period, if you have a trigger and it's reviewed, the system does allow you to review whether or not the clock expired, whether the field goal was called correctly as a 2 or 3, whether or not the shooter committed a boundary line violation, whether or not the 24-second clock expired, it also allows you to determine whether there was an eight-second backcourt violation. But it just does not allow for you to review matters involving judgment calls, or subjective calls."
Jackson says there have not been, to his memory any recent similar situations where a replay showed a clear foul that had not been called.
Phil Jackson can see no way around changing the rule. “Rondo grabbed his arm and pulled his arm off the ball,” says the coach. “So you know, they can't make that adjustment with the replay, but it's a foul after they haven't called it. … Those are things I think the Rules Committee will have to discuss during the off‑season, and we'll come back and probably refine it and tune it up a little bit better.”
Jackson points out that the first step in getting the rule changed would be for league's instant replay committee, which first met last July, and will meet again next month. Of note is that one of the members of the committee is Celtics GM Danny Ainge. (Others are Maverick coach Rick Carlisle, Thunder GM Sam Presti, Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Sixers GM Ed Stefanski. Former Clipper coach and GM Mike Dunleavy and former Cavalier GM Danny Ferry were also on the committee last summer, but as they're not in the NBA currently both will be replaced.)
"I can tell you that the committee has not," says Stu Jackson, "entertained the notion of reviewing judgment-type calls."
Odom isn’t appealing to the league, the rules or anything else. He envisions a different solution to prevent this issue next time. “I was mad at myself” he says. “I have to be a lot stronger with the basketball. Make my space. You have to do it with your elbows a little bit, to keep guys off you. That’s the way it is.”