Why NBA officials can’t review and overturn shooting fouls

Photo of Why NBA officials can’t review and overturn shooting fouls

Shooting fouls seem so simple, so why can’t they be overturned if they’re not called correctly?

The struggling Los Angeles Lakers — without an injured LeBron James — came away with an impressive 10-point overtime victory over the playoff-bound Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a win team president and Lakers legend Magic Johnson said showed growth in his team’s young players.

But that impressive win was nearly wiped away by a bad call that was unreviewable in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. It was a call referees admitted they mucked up and one that opens another question for discussion: why couldn’t this blown call be reviewed and overturned?

The play

On the final play of regulation, the Oklahoma City Thunder trail by three with five seconds left on the clock. Russell Westbrook receives the ball in the back court and began darting up the floor. The Lakers had a foul to give, and knew to use it before Westbrook starts shooting. That would force the Thunder to restart the play with less time on the clock.

Right around the time Westbrook got near the three-point line, Lonzo Ball grabbed him. Westbrook, after being contacted, went up for a jump shot. Despite the timing, the referees called this a shooting foul and awarded him three shots. Westbrook made all three, sending the game to overtime.

The Lakers won this game in overtime, which is equal parts impressive on their end and disappointing on OKC’s, given they have two All-Stars with championship aspirations.

But after the game, a pool reporter asked NBA official Tom Washington about the foul call. Washington said he called the foul because “at the time, he thought Russell had started his shooting motion and he was clearly behind the three-point line.”

The next question was even more important.

If the play was borderline, why was it not reviewed?

Washington’s answer was the one he was supposed to give.

“There is not a trigger to review whether or not there is a foul prior to or on the shot. The trigger would be whether it is a three-point shot or not. And upon being able to see the review of the play, we realized that the illegal contact actually happened prior to the upward motion, so it should’ve been a side-out.”

In other words: we missed the call, but replay rules won’t let us overturn it.

Let’s unpack that further. The NBA has a list of acts or situations that are allowed to be reviewed with instant replay in the final two minutes of a game, but determining whether a foul is in the act of shooting is not one of them. Even though the officiating crew realized the foul occurred before the shot, they could not use instant replay as a basis to give the ball back to Oklahoma City for an inbounds play. The blown call had to stand.

That was too late. Had this game not gone the Lakers’ way, the botched foul call would have been the reason why.

So the refs can’t fix their own mistake? That seems weird

On one level, it’s understandable why a shooting motion foul isn’t reviewable. It opens the door for everything to be reviewable, which in turn, could turn a game into into a lifelong affair delayed by players incessantly begging referees to review everything in the final two minutes. That could turn an amazing NBA product into one people get tired of because of too many stoppages of play late in games. Plus, there will always be an unforseen reviewable circumstance that even the most iron-clad rule will overlook.

But on the flip side, games can be decided by critical calls, made or missed. That’s one of the reasons why the NBA’s Last Two Minutes report became so popular in recent years. Officials can’t retroactively go back and change a call — unless it’s a technical foul that’s later rescinded by the league — but the L2M report at least offers a bit of transparency as to what calls and which officials are wrong in crunch time.

Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle? Maybe everything in the final minute of a close game is up for review, at the official’s discretion. That way, officials don’t have to live and die by a call they made on the court in the heat of the moment that turns out to be dead wrong — like the shooting foul on Westbrook that nearly cost the young Lakers their biggest win of the season.

It’s a tough situation, but the NBA has been smart about adapting on the fly. Hopefully, no teams take bad losses before they do.

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