One of the more exciting games in the NBA's young season was played at the United Center in Chicago last night, where the Nuggets edged the Bulls 90-89 in a game with a controversial finish.
The game was relatively important to both teams as far as early-season games go. The Bulls came in 4-2 with a three-game winning streak on the line. More importantly, Chicago has just one more home game before embarking on its annual "circus trip." That journey, during which the Bulls are unable to play at the United Center because of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus, which occupies the UC from Nov. 18 until Nov. 29. In the interim, the Bulls will be on the road from Nov. 15 until hosting the Pistons on Dec. 2. Chicago's six-game road trip will pit them against the Kings, Lakers, Nuggets, Blazers, Jazz and Bucks. So every win the Bulls can put in their hip pocket before then is important.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets were facing their fifth game in a six-game road trip of their own. After opening the season 5-0, Denver had lost two straight. That second loss was a 25-point trouncing in Atlanta, a game that Denver's starting lineup included Joey Graham and Renaldo Balkman. On Tuesday, however, Denver was back at full strength, with Earl (Don't call me J.R.) Smith III making his season debut and Kenyon Martin returning to the lineup after finding out that he didn't have a fractured left leg after all.
Chicago Bulls Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO%
First Quarter 21 93.3 .500 .111 .000 .140
Second Quarter 23 100.2 .389 .438 .074 .131
Third Quarter 23 101.8 .474 .300 .263 .177
Fourth Quarter 22 103.0 .500 .364 .095 .134
FINAL 89 99.6 .460 .326 .103 .146
Denver Nuggets Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO%
First Quarter 21 102.7 .381 .167 .286 .047
Second Quarter 23 104.5 .475 .385 .250 .218
Third Quarter 23 110.6 .545 .500 .045 .266
Fourth Quarter 22 85.1 .381 .364 .143 .269
FINAL 89 100.8 .446 .341 .179 .202
My takeaways from Tuesday's game:
1. THE ENDING
The game was broadcast nationally on NBA TV, but in case you missed it, I'll decribe the end of the game for you. Then I'll complain about it.
Derrick Rose capped a late 7-2 run for Chicago with a putback with :33.9 remaining to knot the score at 87 apiece. Denver ran an isolation for Carmelo Anthony on the ensuing play. 'Melo faced up Luol Deng from the left corner and as he'd been doing all night, Deng cut off Anthony's attempt to drive baseline. He forced Anthony to pull up for a contested fadeaway jumper from about 12 feet. It could not have been defended better, but Anthony knocked in the clutch shot to put the Nuggets up 89-87 with :10.4 remaining.
After a timeout, Derrick Rose drove on Chauncey Billups down the middle of the lane. Denver had a foul to give but the veteran Billups gave it after Rose had already started to go up for what looked like was going to be an attempt at a teardrop. As Billups complained, Rose calmly nailed both free throws to tie the game at 89 with :10.4 left. That's when the officials and the expanded instant replay use stepped to the forefront.
The Nuggets ran an out-of-bounds play for Billups, who drove on Kirk Hinrich, was cut off, and nearly threw the ball away as a pass into the corner sailed out of bounds. The officials ruled that a Bulls player had tipped the pass and a replay confirmed the call. The Nuggets ran the same play on the ensuing side out with :04.3 remaining. Billups drove the lane against Hinrich, who is notoriously handsy on defense. Captain Kirk reached in and appeared to knock the ball away from Billups but was called for a ticky-tacky foul given the situation. Judgment call, no replay possible. The clock had dwindled to :00.6.
Billups made the first free throw, then missed the second on purpose. Joakim Noah grabbed the miss off the rim and called timeout as the horn sounded. Another replay, and the Bulls were granted :00.3 on the clock. Here is the passage in the NBA rule book that apply to that scenario:
Rule 5, Section IX, Article b (regarding when the clock starts following a missed free throw):
"On a free throw that is unsuccessful and the ball continues in play, the game clock shall be started when the missed free throw is legally touched by any player."
So the instant Noah touched the ball, the clock should have started. Then he had to be granted a timeout, which can only happen when he is deemed to have control of the ball. Apparently, Noah was yelling for a timeout at the moment he grabbed the rebound. The officials reviewed the play, presumably to determine if Noah was able to secure the ball in the same instant that he touched it. They were satisfied that he did and through a process that frankly kind of baffles me, it was decided that there were :00.3 remaining when Noah secured the ball/called timeout.
From the rulebook: "NO LESS than :00.3 must expire on the game clock when a player secures possession of an unsuccessful free throw attempt and immediately requests a timeout. If LESS than :00.3 expires in such a circumstance, the time on the game clock shall be reduced by at least :00.3. Therefore, if :00.3 OR LESS remain on the game clock when the above situation exists, and a player requests a timeout upon securing possession of the ball, the period is over."
After the timeout and advance of the ball, the inbounds pass went to Brad Miller, who was near the top of the circle. In one motion, Miller caught the pass and flicked the ball at the rim. It swished straight through and the crowd erupted on the heels of what appeared to be a 91-90 Bulls victory. Not so fast, as they say. Time for another replay. The officiating crew (Mark Wunderlich, Matt Boland and Eric Dalen) hovered over a monitor at courtside for a good five or six minutes, perhaps more. The replay guidelines clearly state that the officials have to make a decision within two minutes, but oh well. Replays of the play ran over and over on the high-def monitors in the arena, one of which was right beside me in the press box. Finally, Wunderlich, the crew chief, waved off the shot and the Nuggets were declared a 90-89 victor, the crowd booed, and everybody scurried for the exits in a mood most foul.
The first reaction at the arena was of course to see if you could tell on replay whether the ball was still in contact with Miller's fingertips when the red light went off around the backboard. I must have watched the replay from various angles about 20-25 times. I saw nothing conclusive in any of the angles that they showed. Today, the NBA released a statement backing up the call, saying "Though a review is supposed to be completed in a two-minute period, crew chief Mark Wunderlich then asked the truck if there were any additional angles. He was provided with the overhead view that showed the ball was still on Miller's fingertips at the buzzer."
The aforementioned angle was not conclusive. For one thing, the shot was not a typical shot attempt. It was a flick. Miller caught the ball and released it in an atypical motion to get it away from his hands as quickly as possible. You have to judge if the ball was released after the microsecond that it was in contact with Miller's hand and before the red light came on. From the overhead angle, there is no way you could tell when the ball actually left his hand, which continued in a follow-through motion which could have made the ball seem as if it were touching his hand when in fact it was merely hovering over the ball. Same thing from the angle behind Miller. The only angle which might have been conclusive would have been a side angle, court level, in which you may or may not have been able to see distance between the ball and Miller's hand. The video evidence was not conclusive and by definition should not have resulted in an reversal. Of course, if the original call had been no shot, then you could make the same argument -- not enough evidence to overturn the ball on the court. The NBA has already closed the case
on the play, backing Wunderlich's crew, but the NBA is wrong.
The second reaction was confusion. Everyone in the postgame area had a different idea of what the rules are. Some thought you can't catch and shoot at .3, but that is incorrect. For me, the issue was what is the point of having the .3 rule if the referees are just going to go to the replay in every similar situation. I posed that question to the league office and they sent me a document which outlined every instant replay scenario that the refs might face. The relevant passage said, "Instant replay would NOT be used to check a successful basket if the throw-in, free throw attempt or jump ball started with .2 or .1 on the game clock."
In other words, if a basket results on a play with .2 or .1 on the clock and the action falls within the parameters described in the rules for an allowable field goal in that time frame, the referees cannot go to the replay. To me, a similar clause should be in effect for .3 situations and perhaps others. If a player catches and shoots (or flicks) the ball in one motion, then the officials should count the basket and no review should be allowed. However, if a study deems that it is in fact not possible to catch and shoot at .3 (or .4 or so on), then the rules need to be tweaked.
George Karl said today that he would have protested the game if the call had not been overturned. He thought there was a rule in place that stated that if there was any kind of pivot or turn involved that a .3 shot cannot count. There is in fact no such rule on the books, though it would make sense if there were. In this case, it's debatable whether Miller in fact made a pivot. It's true that he wasn't facing the basket, but his motion was still a catch and flick at the hoop. You don't necessarily have to be facing the basket to do that.
Finally, there is the issue of when the clock starts. There is little doubt in my mind that if the clock would have been started the instant Miller touched the inbounds pass, there was no way the ball could have left his hands in .3 seconds. However, the referees are judging the the release of the ball against the illumination of the red light, meaning that a slow clock operator (and there has to be a natural lag in a situation like that, even if the timekeeper is on the up and up) can skew the timing of the play. That is another reason why a written set of criteria describing what kinds of actions, motions and shots are allowed for .1, .2, .3, .4 and probably .5 and .6 would be more definitive than going by the subjective process of interpreting the awkward angles captured on television video.
It was just a messy process that kind of wrecked the end of an exciting game. My overarching concern is that the expanded use of instant replay actually complicates things unnecessarily in some end-of-game situations. Last night's game in Chicago was one of those games.
2. Noah's upward arc
I'll be brief on the rest of these thoughts since I was so long-winded on the first one. The key player in last night's game for Chicago was Joakim Noah, who had 12 points and a career-high 21 rebounds. He also played solid defense on Nene, though he was beaten a couple of times by Denver's cat-quick center when Noah was slow to recover after showing on pick and rolls. Noah is improved in every facet of his game, not the least of which is conditioning. Noah logged nearly 43 minutes on Tuesday, the most court time he's played in a regulation game. He's more fluid offensively, with greatly improved hands and a deft jump hook from the right block and a jump shot which threatens to make him a bonafide threat in pick-and-pop scenarios with Derrick Rose. NBA.com doesn't have Hotspots data available for this season yet, but last season, Noah was 0-of-2 on shots outside of 15 feet last season and 5-of-13 on shots outside the sector immediately around the basket. 82games.com doesn't have specific distance info, but has Noah taking jumpers on 26 percent of his shots this season, with an eFG% of .500. The guy might be the most improved player in the league. The only other player that I've seen this season that has made me think, "Wow, he's a lot better" is Portland's Greg Oden.
3. Deng outplayed Anthony
Luol Deng's fine season continued with a great showing against Denver superstar Carmelo Anthony, who may be playing the best basketball of his career. Deng has 21 points on 14 FGAs, while limiting Anthony to 20 points (a season low) on 22 FGAs. Deng's defense consistently frustrated Anthony and when 'Melo tried to take him off the dribble, Deng was able to keep him away from the baseline and funneled towards his help defense and did so without fouling. Deng added six boards and five assists in the game.
4. Denver has a potentially explosive second unit
Now that Earl Smith III is back in the Nuggets' rotation, Karl has a dynamic second unit backcourt of Smith and Ty Lawson. Add in Chris Anderson as well as bit players Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman and the Nuggets have as solid a bench as anyone. This assumes that Arron Afflalo can hold down the starting two-guard position and the Nuggets stay healthy, but right now things are looking good for Denver even though they never signed the designated shooter (such as Wally Szczerbiak) that they reportedly sought over the summer.
5. Bulls are still a jump-shooting team
No surprise in that statement. However, with the improvement of Noah and the departure of Ben Gordon, there is hope that the Bulls can get to the line more often and score more points in the paint. So far, they rank 28th in FT/FGA after finishing 12th in that category last season. The Bulls' best hope for a big-time foul drawer is Derrick Rose, who is only just now beginning to round into form after missing most of the preseason with ankle troubles. The Bulls are an improved team this season, but this is an area where they need to get better. A lot better.
As usual, I logged some stuff in-game with Twitter. You can follow that and get future Tweets at @bdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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