Tough call: Justice and the NBA

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The Thunders Reggie Jackson and the Clippers Matt Barnes
  • Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America
  • The Thunder's Reggie Jackson and the Clippers' Matt Barnes

Is justice procedural, or is it defined strictly by the results? If an innocent man is mistakenly convicted of murder after a fair trial, has justice been done? Many an appellate judge will say it has. Form was followed, and what more can be asked of any fallible institution?

Yet it isn't all that hard to follow form. Tyrants write exquisite constitutions and conduct show trials that are things of beauty, aside from the fact the poor sap in the dock never has a chance. So maybe the best way to measure justice is by the results.

Sport is unmatched in its ability to pose big questions so that we actually want to think about them. A couple of thrilling NBA playoff games the last couple of nights came down to out-of-bounds calls in the closing seconds that sent the refs to the monitors. TV replays made it clear each time that the letter of the rules dictated one result, the spirit of the rules another. Each game was on the line. The suspense was unbearable.

On Tuesday night the ball went out of bounds with 11.3 seconds to play and the Oklahoma City Thunder down a point to the LA Clippers. Wednesday night the ball went out of bounds with 5 seconds to play and the Brooklyn Nets down two points to the Miami Heat. The refs' first calls gave the ball to the Thunder and to the Nets, but as they studied the replays so did we at home, and we and the TV announcers calling the games came to a couple of pretty clear conclusions. One, the ball had been touched last by Reggie Jackson of the Thunder and Paul Pierce of the Nets. But two, Jackson had been fouled by Matt Barnes and Pierce by LeBron James, though neither foul was called.

The announcers were saying, so what? They made sure we understood the rules: the out-of-bounds calls could be reviewed and reversed; the foul noncalls could not.

When the refs were done huddling, both the Thunder and the Nets got to keep the ball. Russell Westbrook then hit three foul shots (after a dubious foul call on Chris Paul, who apparently flicked Westbrook as he fired the ball from downtown), and the Thunder came away with the victory; the Nets couldn't get off a final shot and the Heat eliminated them from the playoffs.

(Here's video and a deep dive into the crucial calls in the Thunder-Clippers game.)

The Thursday New York Times carried a discussion of the "crushing call" that led to the Clippers' defeat. The refs "chose not to overturn a call in the final seconds that they appeared to get wrong," said the Times, quoting Clippers' coach Doc Rivers, who said, "We got robbed because of a bad call. It's clear. Everybody in the arena saw it." Replays showed that the Thunder's Matt Barnes "hit Jackson across the forearm but did not touch the ball," said the Times, and even if that meant Jackson was fouled, "a foul cannot be reviewed, only possession."

The refs said the replays were inconclusive, but Rivers didn't buy it. "He suggested," the Times reported, "that the referees realized they should have called a foul on Barnes and that this was their way of offering a makeup call."

I'd like to think Rivers was right. Watching the two games, both times I crossed my fingers hoping the refs would stand their ground. If they'd called the plays right to begin with, Jackson and Pierce would have gone to the line. Giving their teams the ball was a clear second best, but it sure beat the alternative: rewarding the teams that whacked Jackson and Pierce to make them cough up the ball.

Does saying this favor rough frontier justice over the rule of law? I don't think so. I think when the law departs from common sense it departs from justice. The prohibition against reviewing foul calls and noncalls is a good one, as otherwise the reviews would consume the games. But when you see one thing while looking for another, it's absurd to pretend you don't. What's interesting is that if a sense of justice motivated the refs to make the calls they made, they apparently think they can't afford to say so.

Even the Supreme Court, when it overturns a precedent, likes to pretend it's respecting it.

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