The final 13.5 seconds of Monday’s Spurs-Thunder Western Conference semifinals playoff game at AT&T Center will be discussed and debated at length in the three days that separate Game 2 from Friday’s Game 3 in Oklahoma City.
This is what happens when the referees are forced to admit they missed a call that might have changed events that followed. But the mistake that lead referee Ken Mauer admitted he and crew mates Marc Davis and Sean Wright made when the final 13.5 seconds began was more footnote than thesis for how the Spurs missed a golden opportunity to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Those final moments of what became a 98-97 Thunder victory were packed with heroic plays, questionable decisions, missed opportunities and officiating errors, real and perceived.
According to Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge, the 41 points he scored rendered meaningless by the outcome, the sequence of events was “a bunch of scrambling.”
The scrambling began when Waiters finally lobbed a long pass to Kevin Durant near midcourt. But before he released the ball he created the space he needed to do so by shoving Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who was aggressively contesting the in-bounds pass Waiters was trying to throw.
It was an action that shocked Spurs partisans in attendance and set forth a torrent of cyber-outrage on social media.
It was a clear offensive foul but it was such an unusual action it caught the referees by surprise. NBA referees don’t often explain their calls or non-calls, but reporters on hand requested the crew explain their view of the play to a pool reporter, and nearly an hour after the game they did so in a remarkably straightforward and forthright manner.
“On the floor, we did not see a foul on the play,” Mauer said. “However, upon review we realize and we agree that we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play that we have never seen before, ever, but we feel we should have had an offensive foul on Waiters.”
Their transparency was laudable, but before their admission of error was issued Gregg Popovich knew the hard truth.
“It won’t mean anything if they do (admit error),” the Spurs coach said. “The game’s over.”
The mad scramble really began when Spurs guard Danny Green knocked the ball from Durant’s grasp after Durant caught Waiters’ pass. It fell to the court between Green’s legs and he gathered it up and lobbed a pass downcourt to teammate Patty Mills, about 10 feet from the Spurs basket.
Mills saw Thunder center Steven Adams sprinting back and into his path. He passed to Ginobili and scrambled to the right corner, behind the 3-point line.
Ginobili took a dribble towards the basket but Adams was in his path, too. He passed to Mills in the corner, Adams chasing the ball and leaping to contest Mills’ shot.
“I threw it to Manu, he drove and made a kick to me in the corner, something we practice all the time,” Mills said. “I just missed the shot.”
But the scrambling continued and Aldridge, who has scored 79 points in the first two games of the series, got his hands on the ball, with a chance to go up for a shot that could have won the game.
Or so he thought.
“I thought I had the ball,” he said. “I thought (Serge Ibaka) had a good chunk of my jersey. I thought there were some things happening that maybe shouldn’t have happened.
“But it’s over now. You can’t keep harping on it.”
When the Spurs review videotape of the game Popovich is certain to harp at them for what he called their poor offensive organization at the outset of the game. Embarrassed by their 32-point loss in Game 1, the Thunder had promised to “swing first” in the game and they landed a solid punch, outscoring the Spurs, 17-4, in the first seven minutes of the game, during which the Spurs missed five layups.
“(The Thunder) were in attack mode, which one would expect,” Popovich said, “but I thought our offensive organization was really poor and it fueled their transition offense. That was the main problem.”
The change in the relative physicality of the teams from Game 1 to Game 2 was stark.
“I thought we did a good job from the beginning making it tough,” said Durant, who scored 28 points. “That first (Spurs) basket didn’t go in and that was a step in the right direction for us after what happened last game. We just tried to make every basket tough.”
Ultimately, it was Adams making Mills’ final shot of the game tough that secured the victory.
“I had a good look at it,” Mills said. “I had no idea what was on the clock. A lot of stuff happened in a short seven seconds or whatever we had. I got my legs under, let it go and just missed the shot.”
*Top Image: Oklahoma City Thunder Forward #35 Kevin Durant takes a jump shot late in the 4th quarter. Photo by Scott Ball.