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NBA: James Harden ‘dunk’ controversy might open up an unwanted can of worms for the league

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On Tuesday, James Harden seemingly dunked on an easy breakaway; but while following through on the jam, the ball had the live-action appearance of going back through the hoop. However, instant replays — for TV audiences only — clearly disputed that notion.

What’s the Houston Rockets’ angle here?

What’s the best-case scenario ruling?

These are two questions stuck in my head, just three days removed from the controversy surrounding a James Harden dunk that didn’t count, the result of simple human error from the on-court officials.

This fourth-quarter omission eventually (and perhaps indirectly) led to the Rockets falling to the Spurs in double overtime (135-133), and subsequently resulted in the Houston franchise filing an official protest to the NBA, according to reports.

(For those who haven’t seen the play, Harden dunked on an easy breakaway; but while following through on the jam, the ball had the live-action appearance of going back through the hoop. However, instant replays — for TV audiences only — clearly disputed that notion.)

The Rockets are apparently seeking the following:

**An official recognition of the referees’ mistake.

**An acknowledgment that Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni should have been allowed to challenge the missed call, via league-sanctioned Instant Replay. (Apparently, the coach didn’t formally request a review in the 30-second window after Harden’s discounted dunk.)

**The NBA to support replaying the final 7:50 of the game — immediately after Harden’s dunk — with the Rockets leading 104-89.

The last one is a real head-scratcher. On-court officials miss calls all the time. It’s not an excuse … just the tacit admission that we’re all human.

Take LeBron James’ amazing non-call from the other night against Utah: Anyone with a modicum of basketball knowledge would identify this sleepy play as traveling; and yet, the on-court referees missed it entirely.

Or what about this detailed montage of blown calls covering the NBA’s modern era? It’s an absurd highlight reel of the officials’ lowest moments; and yet, we can now chuckle at these isolated bouts of absent-mindedness.

In other words, mistakes happen. Shake … it … off.

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON

According to USA TODAY Sports, 26 in-game protests were officially filed by NBA teams from 1978 to 2014, with the league commissioner (Larry O’Bren or David Stern) actually siding with two disputes:

2007-08 CAMPAIGN
The NBA sanctioned a redo of a Hawks-Heat game, covering the final 51.9 seconds.

The reason for the replay? Miami center Shaquille O’Neal had been wrongfully credited with his sixth foul … forcing him out of the game.

Later that season, Atlanta and Miami played out the final 51.9 seconds once again, but the result didn’t change (Hawks win).

1982-83 CAMPAIGN
The officials for a Spurs-Lakers game incorrectly called for a mid-court jump ball after a double lane violation, stemming from a Norm Nixon free throw (second of two attempts).

Soon after, Los Angeles (down two in the waning seconds) corralled the tip at halfcourt, scored the game-tying layup and eventually proferred a 137-132 victory over San Antonio.

The Spurs’ protest was well-received by the NBA, which dictated the double-lane violation (involving both clubs) should have been offsetting, thus prompting a free throw do-over from the Lakers’ Nixon.

And for the subsequent replaying of the game, the Spurs held on to their late advantage, posting a 117-114 win.

Citing the above games, there’s certainly precedent for the NBA calling for a do-over. However, both reversals occurred in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

In Harden’s disputed case, there was 7:50 left on the clock, and Houston possessed a double-digit-point lead.

Does the league really want to open up this can of worms for games that aren’t in the final minute?

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

If the Rockets had not squandered their sizable lead in the final minutes, there would never have been a protest.

And even with a 14-7 overall record, instead of 15-6, it’s safe to assume Houston (led by all-world talents Harden and Russell Westbrook) will finish with 50-plus wins and easily qualify for the Western Conference playoffs.

But what if that presumption goes horribly wrong? What if the Rockets lose Harden or Westbrook for significant time, due to injury, and miss the postseason by one game?

What’s more, what if the Rockets are denied home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, due to the controversial Spurs loss?

The NBA might have serious remorse down the road, if the Rockets are part of the above conundrums by season’s end.

The best course of action here: Short of replaying the final 7:50 of the Spurs game, the NBA should a) formally apologize to the Rockets, b) show public empathy for the controversial defeat and then c) discreetly order up something that happens in every major sport … immediately after a wayward decision by the referees/officials.

Restore harmony and balance to the sports universe … by issuing a make-up call in the Rockets’ favor in the very-near future.

And preferably during a high-profile game.

Maybe even Christmas Day.

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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