Sports

Westerlund: In Defense Of Officials Everywhere

The Clippers' Matt Barns, left, official Tony Brothers, center, and the Thunder's Nick Collison. (Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Clippers’ Matt Barns, left, official Tony Brothers, center, and the Thunder’s Nick Collison. (Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty Images)

Cody Westerlund headshot very small Cody Westerlund
A sports editor for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com, ...
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By Cody Westerlund-

(CBS) Doc Rivers has made a life out of basketball.

After storied tenures at Proviso East High and Marquette University, he played 14 seasons in the NBA for four different teams. Within four years of his retirement as a player, he was named coach of the Orlando Magic, and he’s now in the 15th year as a leading man on the sidelines.

Rarely — if ever — in all that time has Rivers been as fired up as he was last night. After seeing his Clippers blow a 13-point lead in the final four minutes of a 105-104 loss against the Thunder in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series, Rivers launched into the officials while addressing a controversial call in the final seconds.

At issue was a decision — with about 11 seconds left — to award the Thunder the ball after Reggie Jackson drove the lane on a fastbreak and lost the ball out of bounds with his right hand following contact by the Clippers’ Matt Barnes on his left hand. The officials originally ruled the ball went off of Barnes, then went to video replay for review. Video appeared to clearly show that the ball last went off of Jackson’s right hand, but the officials explained later that it was “inconclusive,” thus keeping the ball with the Thunder and setting the stage for Russell Westbrook’s winning free throws.

While the “inconclusive” explanation deserves the utmost scrutiny, an often forgotten rule seems to support the decision of Tony Brothers, Ron Washington and Bennett Salvatore, even if they reached it by accident. As of Wednesday mid-afternoon, the NBA hadn’t released any statement on the call one way or another.

Rule 8 Section II – c of the NBA rulebook states, “If a player has his hand in contact with the ball and an opponent hits the hand causing the ball to go out-of-bounds, the team whose player had his hand on the ball will retain possession.”

This was lost on Rivers and many others in the immediate aftermath.

“We got robbed,” Rivers said in his tirade.

“They made a horrendous call.”

With those words, Rivers illustrated an underlying, domino-effect issue confronting basketball, one that reaches from bitty ball to prep ball, from the collegiate ranks to the pros.

Often, coaches and players, including those at the highest level, don’t know the fine-print rules and every nuance of the game themselves. Too often, they overzealously express their displeasure while not having a proper understanding to begin with. And way, way too often, the histrionics of these coaches and players feed the piranhas in the stands, on their couches, at the bar, on Twitter and in the media.

This is the real reason fans get worked up: They’re like Pavlov’s dogs, trained to respond in fury when they see their coach or star player flap his arms and act like a 5-year-old who had his lollipop stolen.

It’s just the way fans are wired, and it won’t change. Fans are a working-class bunch, many tasked with putting in nine hours a day in the office and making an hour commute each way. They have children to tend to when they get home, errands to run, people to see.

What they don’t have is time to scour a thick rulebook for minute details and fully understand every nuance. Whose responsibility should that be?

The men who make handsome livings in the NBA.

If we are ever to bury our default reaction of blaming the referees, we should first hold accountable the coaches and players for their endless ranting. Because it’s their uproar that creates the mainstream uproar that creates a false narrative that NBA officiating is bad.

It’s not. While we still yearn for perfect consistency across the league and it’s fair to criticize, we also need to recognize that basketball officials have one of the most difficult jobs in all of sports. At every level, they pour more time into their craft than you can imagine, and only when there’s a semblance of controversy do we recognize the men in stripes.

Really, think about it in all the sports you consume — when was the last time you heard or read a compliment about an official? In what other realms of life are we allowed to just berate people while displaying ignorance when they execute their task well, too? Not many, and that makes the incessant complaining more shameful than any single call you may disagree with.

With hindsight to our advantage, a strong argument can be made that the officials nailed the controversial calls at the end of last night’s pivotal Game 5, which will nonetheless go down in lore as one of the most controversial endings ever, thanks to the stakes and Rivers’ postgame rant, which was understandable given that the rule wasn’t properly explained to him.

In the NBA, the hand is considered part of the ball, and Barnes got a lot of Jackson’s hand in knocking the ball away — although, some would argue with merit, too much wrist as well. It’s a reasonable interpretation to simply say Barnes hitting Jackson’s hand wasn’t a foul but did cause the ball to go out of bounds, thus awarding the Thunder the ball under Rule 8 Section II – c.

As for the ensuing possession, you can’t really argue with this photo that shows Chris Paul hitting Westbrook’s elbow on his 3-point attempt.

So, I ask, haven’t we misplaced blame here?

At its most fundamental, the NBA is a league of judgment. Front offices judge the merits of the individuals on their roster while weighing their cost. Coaches judge the performance of their players and the chemistry of how the fit together. In a pick-and-roll heavy league, point guards judge whether to attack, pull up, hit the roll man or find the spot-up shooter.

No one must render judgment faster in the moment than the officials.

So before we go about blasting them, let us all — especially the players and coaches — fully understand the fine print.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.