The final play of Game 2 of the Thunder and Spurs’ Western Conference Semifinals series was a hot mess of unadulterated chaos, a kerfuffle of the highest order, and a botch job by all parties that was so calamitous it needs to be watched a dozen times over to fully grasp it.
It was an ending that was, at first glance, completely unbefitting a game of that stature and magnitude, but because it so defies logic and challenges the imagination, it might just be perfect.
Let’s break it all down. Where else can we start but with the man of the hour, day, week, and perhaps month: Dion Waiters.
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The Syracuse product has made a career out of committing reckless basketball acts, but Monday was by far the best work of his career.
Billy Donovan has made a lot of silly, imprudent decisions in his year in charge of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but having Waiters — the Dion Waiters — inbound the ball up one with 13.5 seconds remaining in a playoff game has to be the single most brain-dead thing he’s done, and this is a man who didn’t realize it was prudent to stagger the playing time of his team’s two All-Stars for more than half a season.
Once Waiters was handed the ball and the responsibility, we should have presumed chaos was imminent. But even those who saw ridiculousness looming couldn’t have predicted what Waiters did next.
Let’s establish that yes, Manu Ginobili was totally violating the rules while defending Waiters. Not only did the Argentinian break the three-foot halo Waiters was entitled to as the inbounder, he straight up crossed the out-of-bounds line in his zeal to induce a five-second violation.
But players encroach on the inbound all the time. There’s rarely an example of a player not encroaching (though perhaps not to the same level as Ginobili Monday night.) Much like a soccer goalie jumping off his line during a penalty kick, this is a rule that has gone unenforced for so long, it might as well have been erased from the book.
But what Waiters did — I don’t think anyone has ever done that before. While it appears that the referees didn’t see Waiters lean over the line and land a forearm shiver across the chest of Ginobili, perhaps it wasn’t that they missed it, but in fact that they were so shocked by the event that they were paralyzed from making the right call, which of course is to whistle the play dead and hand possession to the Spurs.
Technically speaking, the NBA rulebook doesn’t prohibit an inbounder from shoving a defender, most likely because the halo rule should be enforced and the inbounder shouldn’t be able to reach the defender — but in this scenario, it happened. Can you whistle an inbounder for an offensive foul? It’s a paradoxical mess. Technically speaking, the only rule Waiters broke was that he left the ground to inbound the ball.
After Waiters illegally jumped (after he committed what might be the first offensive foul by an inbounder in NBA history) the ball found Kevin Durant, who was also jumping, in this case at half-court. Durant was fouled on the inbounds pass, but that too went without a whistle. As he fell backward, he was promptly stripped by Danny Green, and San Antonio had possession and a chance to win with 11.1 seconds left.
Now let’s break down the calamity that was the final Spurs possession.
San Antonio has won five championships under Gregg Popovich because of ruthlessly efficient execution. This final possession — a three-on-one fast break with a player behind the last line of defense; an advantage any team would gladly take over a side-out inbounds pass — was neither ruthless nor efficient. Green’s pass to a wide-open Patty Mills under the basket was too high, forcing the point guard to swing a pass to Ginobili, who caught the ball on the near baseline 15 feet away from the hoop with eight seconds remaining.
Again, the Spurs were down by one and Ginobili is one of the best mid-range shooters in the league. Gregg Popovich couldn’t have drawn up a better play than this chaos haphazardly produced.
But instead of pulling up for a game-winning shot, Ginobili opted to drive and kick the ball out to Mills, who opted to go behind the 3-point line, despite, again, the Spurs being down by just one.
Thunder center Steven Adams closed out on Mills, and the 6-foot guard shot an airball over the reach of the 7-foot tall center with five seconds remaining.
Adams went tumbling into the crowd, where he was grabbed by a fan and prevented from re-entering the fray under the hoop.
And what a fray it was. LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Waiters all tugged and pulled for the ball once the errant shot hit the floor, with Ibaka eventually coming up with it at the buzzer, after what appeared to be a clear foul on the initial rebounder, Aldridge.
Adams, incensed about being restrained by a fan, immediately turned around and started barking at San Antonio’s sixth defender.
The Thunder celebrated, the Spurs confronted the refs, but the game was over and there was nothing that could be reviewed, reversed, or added to change the final score: Oklahoma City 98, San Antonio 97.
Each individual event in this 10-player basketball pileup would be enough to create controversy to last a week. Instead, we saw what might be the single most ridiculous ending to a playoff game in NBA history.
Neither team can fairly lay claim to Monday’s victory. The ending of the contest was so convoluted, so unconscionably botched by all parties involved (the Thunder, the Spurs, and the referees) that there’s only two logical resolutions for those of us without an emotional interest in the outcome:
We play the entire game over again, because we need to totally eradicate that ending from the permanent record. Or, we enjoy the chaos for what it was: a spectacle of high-pressure futility the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.