The challenge is to leave aside, even if just for a second, the question of whether it actually, truly was a charge or a block.
I mean, of fucking course it was a charge. Parse the letter of the law as finely as you’d like, to make your case over bullshit like a sliding foot or a leaning torso; what basketball has a rule against, however the fuck that rule may happen to be worded, is an offensive player plowing into a space clearly occupied by a defensive player before the offensive player arrives. That’s the purpose of the rule: to protect a defensive player’s right to occupy a spot along the vector of an offensive player’s movement, and to punish out-of-control offensive players for bashing their way through clearly occupied space. The rule is, hey, I was standing here, you can’t just charge through me to the hoop.
My feet don’t have to be set; my torso doesn’t have to be stationary; I don’t have to have my arms crossed over my chest or cupped protectively over my dick and balls; I don’t have to do a perfect stiff-backed trust-fall into the floor when you smash into me. Those common practices exist to signal the referees, to call their attention to the play; to perform “drawing a charge,” in the same way that James Harden flails his arms and yelps on a drive to the hoop not because that’s what makes slapping him on the arm illegal, but to perform “getting slapped on the arm” so that he can convince the referees that his arm has been slapped. To draw a foul. But a foul doesn’t have to be drawn; it doesn’t have to look a certain way. A shooting foul can happen even if the shooter doesn’t react to it; a charge can happen whenever an offensive player plows through space occupied by an established defender, whether that defender assumes the familiar pose or not.
In any event, relative to the pace at which things happen in an NBA basketball game, LeBron arrived at and established himself in the spot where Kevin Durant plowed into him eons before Durant did. He was established there before the dawn of time. You could have steered the fucking RMS Titanic around him in the time he stood there. He could have read Anna Karenina while he waited for Durant to arrive.
Yes, he leaned toward Durant—who was completely out of control and made absolutely no effort to evade the defender standing squarely in front of him, a perfect exemplar of the kind of bull-rush the charging rule exists to prohibit—just prior to contact. This was in preparation for a flop, an accommodation of the dismal fact that NBA referees virtually always default to calling this type of play a blocking foul on the established defender whenever that defender does not perform the dishonest theater of throwing himself backward onto the floor. (Meanwhile, they are happy to call any number of charging fouls in instances in which a skilled actor throws himself in front of a shooter who is already exploding up toward the rim, despite that not being a charge at all but rather pretty much the definition of a blocking foul.)
In a sane and not stupid world, one in which the rules of the sport were understood to govern the sport itself and not to be a means to flatter the referees by cueing them to drape their influence over the game like a great big wet blanket, this would have been unnecessary. LeBron could have pirouetted on the spot and smacked himself on the ass and it still would have been a charge, because in that sane world what made it a charge would be Kevin Durant doing the basketball thing the basketball rule exists to prohibit, and not whether or not LeBron James adequately performed the interpretive dance meant to convince the third-party officials that he’d earned their grace.
Here in this one, he leaned toward Durant. So fucking what. It’s not a rule that exists to set boundaries on leaning. It exists to set boundaries on charging. It was a fucking charge. Referee Ken Mauer saw that it was a charge; he moved to signal a charge; he looked at his partner referee to see whether the call was going to go the other way, saw that it wasn’t, and called a charge. Because it was a charge. If you watch a thousand basketball games you may see a small handful of charges as clear as this one.
And this doesn’t even get into the procedural outrage, which is that the referees made a big dishonest botch-job of the rules governing which charging calls are reviewable:
No one credibly can claim any doubt over whether LeBron was in or out of the restricted area; not only was he clearly outside the restricted area—he’d been outside of it for quite some time, in fact—he was, by the time Durant plowed into him, an entire damn yard outside the restricted area, way out in the middle of the lane. And to top all of that off, after initiating a review of a play that shouldn’t have been reviewable, they then overturned the call on the basis of a purely interpretive point (the meaning of “legal guarding position”) totally unrelated to their (phony) pretext for reviewing the call in the first place. That’s just straight-up officiating malpractice.
But, now that you’re mad about this—either at the fucked-up result or at me for writing annoyingly about it—set it aside. Because the question of whether it really was an actual charge or not is a trap, a trick of perspective and light, like the phony road Wile E. Coyote paints on the face of a cliff. The problem here is video review.
In real time, ruling on a play like this is pretty straightforward. The referee knows the rules, knows the things they’re intended to prohibit, sees the play from his privileged close-up vantage point, and blows his whistle if he sees what looks to him like one of the things the rules prohibit. A call like charging/blocking will be at least a little bit ambiguous and interpretive, even in real time, in a way that, for example, a made basket is not: “Being established in a legal guarding position in a spot on the floor” is not as simple and binary a thing as whether a ball passed through a hoop. There will always be enough room between the language describing charges and blocks and the actual action on a basketball court for players and fans to see what they want to see in how the former is applied to the latter.
What fucks this up entirely is the referees being permitted to review the play in slow motion, from multiple recorded angles. This doesn’t solve a problem, but introduces countless new ones. Now “legal guarding position” and “being established in a legal guarding position in a spot on the floor” must be defined to the standard of a frame rate wildly different from the pace at which the participants and observers, uh, experience reality.
In real time, it’s a simple question: Was he in the spot before the offensive player got there? Of course he was! He’d only just finished cooking, serving, and eating an entire brisket in the spot when Kevin Durant came along and barreled through it! In super slow motion, it’s a hopeless and hopelessly absurd rabbithole of stupid and needless questions: Was he leaning one way or another during the fraction of a fraction of a second immediately prior to contact? Was his foot perfectly stationary, in a way a basketball player’s foot virtually never is? With both participants in motion throughout the actual event, which freeze-frame—which despite appearances actually captures the motion of a small span of time, rather than a discrete instant of time, because there actually is no such thing as a discrete instant of time—should be considered the exact moment of the canonical event, and by what the fuck insane reasoning is that determination made? Is it even possible for the players on the court to do literally anything in a way that will reconcile the language of a basketball rule worded for real time to the standard of super slow-motion video?
The answer to that last one is: No. So the rule has to be made more specific. It’s not governing real time anymore; now it is governing the super slow-motion review of real time. It doesn’t tell players how to play, now—it can’t do that, because they play a fast-moving and physically rough sport in real time and simply don’t have access to the level of robotic precision the rule now requires—but rather tells officials how to judge a slow-motion video of players playing. Now it’s the ordinary human perception of reality, and not the referees’ judgment, whose unreliability must be accepted as part of the sport: Did that really happen? I’m not sure that really happened. Let’s watch it in super slow motion to see if it really happened, or if all of the fucking sensory organs of the creatures for whose sensory entertainment this thing exists got it wrong.
This is what happened to the NFL! This is why NFL games blow and the coolest and most spectacular football plays have now become nothing more than dismal preludes to lengthy explanations of the needless details of Byzantine rules. Last night it happened to what could have ended as one of the best and most thrilling NBA Finals games in years. It isn’t even the worst way the events of the final minute of the fourth quarter combined to screw LeBron James, but that doesn’t make it any less of an unsightly and avoidable fucking mess.