This was James Harden’s MVP moment.
Stymied most of the second half by Gregg Popovich instructing his players to intentionally foul Josh Smith, the Houston Rockets superstar nonetheless had the ball in his hands with a chance to beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Harden caught on the left wing with six seconds left and was aggressively checked by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Kawhi Leonard. A small hesitation had The Beard’s shoulders past his defender’s and headed to the paint, where only future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan awaited between he and a huge Houston victory.
Harden leapt in the air and extended his dangerous left arm as far as he could. It’s worked so many times in his glorious 2014-2015 campaign, but not on Friday night. Duncan’s outstretched hand knocked the ball from Harden’s grasp for what looked like a clean block, and the 38 year-old legend collected the loose ball and threw an outlet to as the clock finally expired.
But big moments between big players in the NBA merit extra scrutiny even when they don’t deserve it, especially in a game bearing major playoff implications that was as hotly contested as this one. Did Duncan rake Harden across the arm? Did the officials cost Houston a likely win and limit its chances of home court advantage?
Rockets broadcasters Bill Worrell, Clyde Drexler, and Matt Bullard were positive – their team was robbed. And though ensuing replays lent some credence to their outrage, one obvious and most important point still stands: Duncan got the ball before scraping Harden’s arm.
A no-call is the right one to us, but there’s enough grey area here that frustrations of Houston fans is easily understood. The NBA rule, though, seems to indicate Duncan’s contact was legal:
Contact with the shooter’s arm or wrist during the shooter’s follow-thru is considered illegal if the contact prevents the shooter from following-thru naturally. If, however, incidental contact occurs after the shooter has been given sufficient room to follow-thru, no foul call will be made.
Perhaps more than anything, this situation serves as a crucial reminder for league followers of all kinds: Never take local announcers at their word. The way Worrell and company told it, Duncan committed so obvious a foul on Harden that the league would inevitably issue a statement confirming the referees’ mistake. That won’t happen, of course, and we’ll even be surprised if tomorrow’s officiating report finds fault in Duncan’s block.
Fair or foul, the game’s outcome is final. San Antonio wins and Houston loses, pushing the Spurs to third-place in the Western Conference while the Rockets tumble to sixth.