Were it just one game, the Hawks wouldn’t have been quite so irate. (Still mad, but less so.) But what happened in Cleveland on Wednesday must be viewed with an eye toward what happened on Dec. 19, 2007.
History lesson: The Hawks’ stat crew miscounted and ruled Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out when he hadn’t. The Miami Heat protested. The NBA ruled the final 51.9 seconds of that game had to be replayed. And, for good measure, David Stern fined the Hawks $50,000 for “gross negligence.”
By the time the replay arrived on March 8, 2008, the man in question was no longer on Miami’s roster, Shaq having been dealt to the Suns at the trade deadline. And the Hawks wound up winning anyway. Still, it was a massive embarrassment for an organization that has known a good measure of embarrassment.
And now the Hawks await their day in court, pun only partially intended. They have a strong case. A Cleveland timekeeper failed to reset his 24-second clock after Al Horford gained a defensive rebound. (According to the Hawks, the timekeeper told Mike Woodson he pushed the button twice and nothing happened.) The Hawks led by a point inside the final two minutes. They wound up having roughly 13 seconds to shoot. They never got that shot.
When Woodson saw the clock running down prematurely, he called out the code word that means, “Get the ball to Joe Johnson!” But there wasn’t time even for that. The truncated-by-half possession ended with Josh Smith fumbling a pass and LeBron James gathering up the ball and triggering a sequence that wound up with the Cavs taking the lead on Anderson Varejao’s follow.
The Hawks would never nose back ahead. Yes, we can fault them for blowing a 17-point lead, but what happened before shouldn’t affect the NBA’s verdict. The bottom line is that the Hawks were undone at a vital juncture not by a bad play or a ref’s bad call but by a systemic malfunction — the failure of the clock to be reset — that should have been corrected on the spot. But Ken Mauer, the lead official, told Woodson he didn’t know what the coach was talking a bout. (This again according to the Hawks.)
Indeed, there were three timing errors on the sequence: First, the 24-second clock didn’t recycle; next, the refs didn’t notice that the Hawks , owing to the non-reset, had committed an apparent backcourt violation after Horford’s rebound — NBA rules hold that a team must cross halfcourt in eight seconds, and the shot clock was below 10 when they did — and finally, that the erroneous shot clock had actually expired before LeBron took possession, which should have resulted in a stoppage of play.
Why did the refs not notice anything amiss? Why did the timekeeper not use his horn to stop play and correct his mistake? (When Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com sought to ask Mauer’s interpretation, he was handed a brusque “no comment.”) And now, if the NBA chooses to let the outcome stand, we’ll be forced to ask an even more pointed question. Namely, does the league — as is widely believed — play favorites?
Say the teams had been reversed and LeBron’s side had been harmed by the lack of a reset: Would Mauer and crew have seen it differently? And will David Stern? The Hawks have long believed Miami’s starpower — Shaq and Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley — swayed the issue back when, but here’s where the NBA gets the chance to prove it didn’t. Here’s where Stern gets to say, “We treat all our franchises equally.”
If the Heat deserved a replay two years ago — and it did — then the Hawks-Cavs ending warrants one now. And if none is forthcoming, then won’t that tell us all we need to know about the NBA and its way of doing business?