March Madness arrived early in last night's Boston-Miami game, but that had less to do with LeBron James's improbably perfect game-winning jumper over Jeff Green, and far more to do with the mindless, inane three-and-three-quarter-minute review on the following play.
After James's shot, Boston trailed by two with 10.5 seconds remaining. The Celtics took a timeout to set their offense and advance their inbounding position past half court. Avery Bradley passed to a driving Jeff Green, who had been Boston's best scorer all night. Green tried to beat his man, Shane Battier, but Battier stayed in front of him and blocked him. Battier, ever the vigilant defender, swatted the ball away when Green tried to raise it above his shoulder. But Green regained possession. He gathered the ball and attempted a two-handed heave. Battier's strength, put behind his extended left hand, kept the ball between Green's hands. As Green's drive ended, and he returned toward the ground, he lost the ball, and Battier and gravity conspired to slide the ball down his forearm. Who touched it last? Battier and Green both! Block: Battier; ball: Boston; seven seconds left.
No one watching could have seen much wrong with this. Some blocked shots go this way. The ball moves too much, and off too many sources, to trace its course at live speed. Rarely does it have a spell of unattached flight. In the absence of compelling counter-evidence, the shooting team (and, yes, often the home team) gets a reprieve. This isn't what the NBA's rules say to do—"Rule 8, Section d.: If the ball goes out-of-bounds and was last touched simultaneously by two opponents, both of whom are inbounds or out-of-bounds, or if the official is in doubt as to who last touched the ball, or if the officials disagree, play shall be resumed by a jump ball between the two involved players in the nearest restraining circle"—but the de facto arrangement works.
After all, we have a general idea of why the NBA has an out-of-bounds rule in place: To punish the player, and the team, responsible for the ball's breach of the boundary. If a player throws a pass two feet over his teammate's head and into the luxury seats, the defending team gets the ball. If a would-be perfect pass is deflected toward the scorers' table by an opponent's hand, the passing team keeps the ball. The functional question is always, who deserves the blame? Here, it was Battier. Without his involvement, Green would have had a layup.
But the usual procedure evidently didn't cut it for last night's officials (Scott Foster, David Guthrie, and Matt Boland), who stopped the game to review what happened. NBA officials have been allowed to use replay to determine possession during the last two minutes of fourth quarters and overtime since the 2009-10 season, and these three had no interest in relinquishing their Stern-given right. So they watched the play again, as we did. And then again. And again, and again, and again some more, for three minutes and 46 seconds, while we had to listen to Mike Tirico bellow on, like he does in that video up there. Excruciating. What did the officials learn?
Nothing. Boston kept the ball, even though the one video ESPN kept playing and Hubie Brown kept narrating showed that the ball just might have rolled off Green after Battier had backed his fingers away from it. But maybe it didn't. The expansion of instant replay was sold as sports leagues employing common sense—we have such great technology, etc. Won't the referees ever find some common sense of their own?