Carmelo Anthony scored a season-high 45 points in New York's 109-106 home loss to Houston and it could have been 47, if not for a referee's debatable decision in the game's closing seconds.
With 5.8 seconds remaining and Houston leading 107-104, the Knicks inbounded to Anthony, who came open at the right angle. Shortly after the catch, Rockets guard James Harden bumped Anthony's back before reaching across Anthony's arm twice to commit a deliberate foul. After the last bit of contact, Anthony raised up into a leaning three-pointer, which swished through. Had the shot been ruled a continuation play, the game would have been tied at 107 and Anthony would have stepped to the free throw line for a go-ahead free throw and a chance at a memorable four-point play.
Instead, the foul was ruled to be on the ground, before the shot, and Anthony was awarded two free throws. The Knicks' All-Star forward made both, cutting Houston's lead to 107-106. Harden made a pair of free throws on the other end to deliver the final margin.
Was Anthony jobbed by the guys in black and white? It doesn't appear so.
The video above shows the referee whistling the foul as Anthony leans in to Harden to begin his shooting motion. The referee doesn't signal the call until a split-second later, but he immediately points to the ground and waves the attempt off, an apparent indication that he was assessing the foul for Harden's initial bump in the back. In fact, the shot is emphatically waved off even before Anthony's three went through the net.
All doubt would have been removed if the whistle was audible immediately upon the bump in the back, but less than a second passes between the bump and the whistle sound, which seems like a reasonable time frame for such a decision to be made.
Bleacher Report caught up with referee Scott Foster, who confirmed that the foul was called before Anthony entered his shooting motion, negating the possibility of a continuation call.
"The initial contact was before he started to turn, while his back is to the basket, and then he flings it up. The initial contact is way before what probably everybody else thinks. It’s a push, a slap and then another slap but we’ve already called the foul on the initial contact. Now he turns and throws it up."
Foster also noted that a continuation call was not reviewable in this scenario.
Considering the circumstances -- last year's scoring champion, at home, game on the line, crazy shot, immediate crowd explosion -- it's actually surprising that Anthony didn't get the call. If ever there was a moment for a little superstar treatment to enter the equation this would have been it.
Houston's decision to foul while up three points was an interesting one, as they have been burned by late three-pointers on multiple occasions over the last week or so. The Rockets didn't foul while up three against the Sixers on Wednesday and James Anderson hit a game-tying three-pointer to force overtime. Philadelphia went on to win 123-117. On Monday, the Rockets didn't foul while up three against the Raptors and Rudy Gay hit a game-tying three-pointer to force a second overtime period. Houston managed to win that one 110-104. The Rockets were also victimized by a Steve Blake game-winning three at the buzzer last Thursday, although that was a different situation, as they were only up by two on the final possession.
Traditionally, NBA coaches have preferred to simply play defense rather than foul while up three points in late-game situations. In recent years, the European strategy of fouling while up three points to protect against game-tying shots has gained advocates. The idea is to force the opponents to make their free throws and eat up the clock by forcing the opponent to foul you on the next possession.
Numbers crunched by 82Games.com and DePauw University coach Bill Fenlon strongly suggest that fouling when up by three is the smarter play from a statistical standpoint, but a 2010 New York Times article makes it clear that the "foul vs. no foul" debate remains a divisive issue among NBA coaches and executives.
Risk-averse coaches have long been afraid of the nightmare scenario represented by Harden's foul. When teams don't foul when they are up three, the worst-case scenario is overtime; fouling when up three opens up the slight possibility of losing in regulation via a four-point play, or by some other fluke (an offensive rebound on a missed second free throw and a second-chance score). Even though Thursday's sequence was particularly hairy, given how close Harden cut it and how quick Anthony got into his shooting motion, the strategy did wind up playing out in Houston's favor. Barely.
Houston improved to 6-4 with the win. Harden led the way with 36 points (on 9-for-17 shooting) and nine rebounds. Dwight Howard added seven points (on 1-for-5 shooting), 15 rebounds and four blocks.
Anthony scored a game-high 45 points (on 17-for-30 shooting) and added 10 rebounds and four assists. Bargnani tallied 24 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) and four rebounds in a losing effort. New York fell to 3-5 on the season with the loss.
Video via YouTube user Frank Den