Damian Lillard has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.
Last postseason, he sunk a shot from the logo to sink the hearts of Oklahoma City fans. In 2014, his second season in the Association, he made a three off an inbound pass with less than a second on the clock to clinch the series over the Rockets.
So on Friday, when he drove to the rim with 14 seconds left in the game against the Utah Jazz to tie the game, it appeared as though it would be another instance where he would potentially seal a win for the Blazers, possibly tying their record with the eighth-seed Memphis Grizzlies.
Until Rudy Gobert blocked the layup.
“That absolutely looked like it should have been a goaltend,” said ESPN play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco.
Replay confirmed Ruocco’s exclamation. The subsequent two-minute report verified it, but to the officiating crew on the court, the play stood. Lillard and the Blazers lost the game, 117-114.
“Cost us a f---ing game,” Lillard said after the game. “There ain't no way to take the sting out of it. We can't have the game back.”
In a surprising move, league officials did not fine the Portland guard for his comments. Instead, his team is punished as they sit two games behind the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Since no call was made on the floor, the league was unable to rightfully call the block a goaltend. Since the play stood, Trailblazers’ head coach Terry Stotts was unable to call a challenge. The NBA created a catch 22.
On Thursday, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was fined $25,000 for “verbally abusing officials” after they missed repeated screams for a timeout. Those who were on the receiving end of the aforementioned abuse were not reprimanded for ignoring the timeout calls.
Rockets suffered a similar situation on Dec. 3 when they were robbed of a basket against the Spurs. With 7:50 remaining in the game, Houston guard James Harden stole the ball and dunked it, which would have increased the lead to 15.
They ruled the dunk a missed basket because it 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 conference to discuss the play.”
The Rockets would lose in double overtime, 135-133. Although they attempted to protest the call, saying the referees “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.”
The league determined the protest was unwarranted but said the officials were disciplined for misapplying the Coach’s Challenge rule. The details of how the officials were reprimanded were not released.
Regardless of the sport, regardless of the league, time after time games are marred by officiating controversies. And time after time, those very referees are not held accountable for mistakes. Mistakes that put playoff odds at risk, and in the case of the New Orleans Saints, resulting in an embarrassing playoff exit.
Frustration is a common emotion. After games, players and coaches, rife with frustration are forced to face the media and recount the moments that spoiled the game. Yet, if they dare fall out of line and speak against the referees, they face a fine.
But those who made the mistakes are not held accountable.
The NBA Players’ Union goes out of its way in an effort to increase transparency by posting its current collective bargaining agreement on its website. The NBA Referees Association does not.
In an effort to increase transparency and “build a greater awareness and understanding of the rules and processes that govern our game,” the NBA began issuing last two-minute reports in 2015.
What has ensued has not led to greater awareness or understanding of basketball, but rather greater confusion as to why the Association opts to let fans know a game was lost over poor calls yet makes no effort to hold officials accountable.
It’s correct to point out that those missed calls would not have guaranteed wins. Lillard’s shot was only to tie the game, still leaving nine seconds for the Jazz to answer back and potentially overtime. Clifford’s timeout may not have led to a scoring play.
In fact, the Blazers had a wide-open three at the buzzer to win the game.
But poor officiating alters the course of games that could alter the course of athletes’ careers, and in turn, their legacies. Leagues can’t improve officiating until referees are publicly held accountable. And it’s hypocritical to fine players and coaches for speaking out of line.
Fans deserve better. Players and coaches deserve better. It’s time to be better.
Follow Christian on Twitter @unofficialchris and contact him at [email protected]