LOS ANGELES — This wasn’t how the Clippers envisioned their first crack at revenge against the Rockets: without an injured Chris Paul, without anything resembling an answer for James Harden, and without a whistle when they needed it most.
Houston claimed a 109–105 road victory on Saturday behind a game-high 46 points from Harden, who lapped up the courtside love from Drake and Kevin Hart. The 2015 MVP runner-up left Austin Rivers out to dry on a transition layup and sniped from the top of the key, buried five three-pointers and hit 14 of his 26 shots one night after he scored 43 points in a road win over the Kings. Four straight wins, and Harden’s monster back-to-back scoring efforts, have squelched the questions and doubts that surrounding the Rockets following their shaky 0–3 start.
The bad taste from its postseason collapse against Houston will linger on for L.A., who made due well enough without Paul, sidelined with a minor groin injury, by using Blake Griffin as a point forward for long stretches. Griffin delivered 35 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, seamlessly transitioning from offense initiation to low-post banging, but he left the floor in a huff after a controversial no-call late.
With less than 25 seconds left and Houston leading 107–105, Griffin powered through the paint to loft a lefty layup. The initial attempt missed but he quickly followed with a tip try, that rimmed around for a moment before Dwight Howard got a hand on it. Although the ball appeared to be in the cylinder, no whistle blew, and play continued with J.J. Redick batting the carom out of bounds to the baseline in the scramble for possession. The NBA ruled Sunday that a goaltending call was actually missed.
“I thought it was very, very clear,” Griffin said later. “I actually watched it already. I couldn’t wait until I got home. I watched it. Terrible times. That’s textbook goaltending.”
The NBA’s goaltending rule prohibits contact with the basketball while it’s in the cylinder and has a chance to score. The international goaltending rule, used during the Olympics and the FIBA World Cup, allows defenders to contact the ball while it’s on the rim or in the cylinder. There has been some discussion in recent years that the NBA should adopt the looser international rules to avoid controversy, but so far there hasn’t been any movement in that direction.
“We had an opportunity to tie it,” DeAndre Jordan said, before referencing that rule difference as he trailed off. “I think it was tied, but this is FIBA, so ...”
Griffin, coach Doc Rivers and multiple other Clippers players immediately began campaigning for a video review after the ball went out of bounds. The crew of Derrick Stafford, Kevin Cutler and Scott Wall did initiate a review, but only to confirm who would receive possession on the tip out of bounds.
Because none of the referees had whistled for a goaltending violation on Howard, they were not allowed to review that portion of the play, per league rules. Rivers, who is a member of the NBA’s Rules Committee, said afterward he wished the referees had erred on the side of caution by calling the goaltending violation so that they would have had an opportunity to review the play.
“It was a goaltend,” Rivers said. “[The referee] just wasn’t sure from what they said. I thought that’s why we put that rule in though. So, in the last two minutes, if you’re not sure, blow the whistle. [If they had called the goaltending], they could have reviewed.“
That technicality turned L.A.’s overt calls for action on the court into empty gestures of frustration. Griffin appeared to direct words at multiple officials as he left the court once Houston’s Ty Lawson secured the win with a pair of free throws. With the benefit of some time to cool off, Griffin struck a kinder tone.
“It happens,” he said. “That’s why there’s three of them out there. Reffing a game is very hard. I tried to ref a little league camp game this summer and it didn’t go so well. This game is going fast. I would never say, ‘I don’t think any of those guys missed it on purpose.’ I really don’t. They’re good refs, but it’s unfortunate because it could change the course of the game.”
Rivers shifted the focus from the call to his team’s overall play, which he thought was lacking in “urgency,” and his own lack of defensive adjustments on Harden. “It’s only Game 6,” he said, mentioning his need to incorporate many new faces into his rotation.
Indeed, the stakes for the Clippers were miniscule compared to their postseason collapse: Game 6 of 82 in early November will never sting like a Game 7 in May. The schedule rolls on, but Howard’s disputed tip not only kept the ball from finding net, it kept the Clippers from finding a fresh start.