Even in taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, don’t you think that there is just a little part of Miami Heat president Pat Riley that just hates to watch what he saw Wednesday night?
The Heat survived, winning the game in the final seconds - well, actually with no time left on the clock - in an infuriating exchange of touch fouls as the officials became the most notable figures on the court down the stretch.
Here’s the thing, it’s a long time since Riley led the Knicks and Heat as a coach, forging hard-as-nails defensive units that beat the opponent into submission. The game has changed. But nights like Wednesday make you wonder if it’s for the best.
With Miami up three and Milwaukee making a furious comeback, Khris Middleton rose up for a prayer of a three-point field goal in traffic. Goran Dragic raised his arms straight up, didn’t jump to contest the shot and maybe — maybe — nudged his upper body forward enough to make contact as Middleton tried to land. Or maybe Middleton went up looking for a call all along.
And then Jimmy Butler, guarded tightly in the corner, attempts a game-winning jumper - but as Giannis Antetokounmpo races over to help he moves too quickly and after the shot is released, with the clock down to zero and Butler still in the air, Antetokoumpo puts his left hand on him to brace himself.
Marc Davis, the official who made the foul call on Middleton’s three-point attempt and then on the last-second jumper by Butler, made the proper calls according to the book.
“I got fouled,” Butler said afterward. “Pushed me in the back. Can’t deny that.”
“The ref said there was contact there,” Antetokounmpo said. “Maybe there was. It is what it is.”
And that’s the point: according to the book, Davis made the proper calls. The officials take time at the start of every season to explain the nuances of calls, to detail points of emphasis and point out that a call is a call, no matter the time or score. So maybe the thing is that the book needs to be rewritten.
Maybe Riley’s teams helped push the league to make these changes and provide an easier path for offensive players. So while Riley was certainly pleased with the result Wednesday night, he might have died a little inside celebrating a touch foul with no time on the clock and Butler winning the game on the free-throw line.
There was defense without fouls Wednesday night of all places coming from the Houston Rockets and their undersized roster of three-point shooters - and in particular, James Harden.
Harden provided a clean block with seconds remaining as Lu Dort attempted a three-point field goal, closing out in textbook fashion, getting a piece of the ball but flying past the shooter to the side.
Certainly not known for his defense, he made the play to get Houston into the next round. But there also were a few head-scratching moments for the Oklahoma City Thunder that helped get the Rockets there.
Chris Paul, the hero of Game 6, forced a terrible pass that was deflected back to him, setting off a scramble of desperation moves that resulted in Dort finding the ball in his hands with the clock ticking down. While Dort had a sensational game, scoring 30 points, the last of those came on an open three-point with 4:40 to play. The rookie is in the lineup for his defense and most of the shots were open as the Rockets tried to make him the shooter. To his credit, he shot the final attempt under control and it was Harden who made a sensational defensive play to block it.
But Dort looked like a rookie as he grabbed the ball out of the air and, with time still on the clock, skipped out on calling time or looking to shoot again. Instead, he turned and tried to throw the ball off of Harden — which made little sense since Harden was between Dort and the sideline and bouncing it off him likely would have resulted in it skipping back into play. But Harden leaped anyway, letting the ball go out off OKC.
After a missed free throw gave the Thunder one more chance, inbounding in the frontcourt with 1.1 seconds left, they ran a lackadaisical inbound play and could not get the ball into one of their shooters and instead tried to force it to Steven Adams 20 feet from the rim. The ball was deflected off his hands and he would have been the last one on the floor you’d want with it there needing a quick score.