The Thunder narrowly escaped with a 115-113 win over the Nuggets on Monday after Russell Westbrook was whistled for a "What are you doing?" foul on Ty Lawson in the game's closing seconds. The tense time/score situation threw a sliver of panic into Oklahoma City's television broadcasting crew; it wound up giving Denver a shot at winning the game in regulation and it led to confusion on Twitter, where viewers debated whether the referees had made the correct call.
This one is worth a deeper look.
With 3.5 seconds remaining, Derek Fisher stepped to the line and hit a pair of free throws, putting Oklahoma City up 115-112. Kenneth Faried collected the ball on the baseline and heaved a long-distance pass to Lawson, who was jockeying for position with Westbrook near midcourt. As Lawson came back toward the ball, he appeared to take contact from Westbrook to his back and went hurtling into the backcourt as the ball sailed well over his head. The foul was whistled by a referee who was standing just a few feet away.
Although Westbrook and Thunder coach Scott Brooks appealed for a no-call, presumably because Lawson exaggerated the contact and/or because the pass was probably uncatchable, the Thunder broadcasters were concerned that Westbrook had been assessed an "away-from-the-play" foul, which would give the Nuggets one foul shot plus possession because the clock was under two minutes. Considering that this was a three-point game, such a call would have completely altered the game's dynamic, giving Denver the opportunity to cut the lead to two and then set up a play to go for either the tie or the win in regulation.
Instead, the referees awarded Lawson two foul shots. Why? Because the contact occurred after the throw-in and because Lawson, as the intended recipient of the pass, is deemed to be part of the play.
The NBA's Case Book offers an explanation for this exact situation.
Q. During the last two minutes of the fourth period, Player A1 is attempting a throw-in from out-of-bounds to Player A2. As the ball is in the air and Player A2 awaits the pass, he is fouled by Player B1. How is this administered?
A. This is a common foul, as Player A2 was involved in the play. This is not considered an away-from-the-play foul. On the same play, if Player A3 was setting a screen for Player A2 and was fouled, it also would be considered a common foul.
"Player A2" in this case is Lawson, and the referees therefore assessed this correctly by hitting Westbrook with a common foul (two shots) rather than an away-from-the-play foul (one shot plus possession). The Case Book's guidelines make it pretty clear than any contact that occurs in a scrum (after the throw-in) will be a common foul because "the play" is taking place wherever the recipients of the pass are located. That's a logical standard, even if the clock is still stopped until someone actually touches the ball.
This interpretation winds up giving the referees a lot of leeway in avoiding an away-from-the-play foul in these situations. That's a good thing. An away-from-the-play foul is meant to be a particularly punitive punishment to dissuade "Hack-a-Dwight" tactics, holding and grabbing as players work to get open on inbounds plays, and other unnecessary nonsense, and it shouldn't enter the discussion if players are tripping over each other or making hard contact while competing for the basketball in a game-deciding situation. Even if Westbrook didn't make much of an attempt on the ball here, he could have hypothetically knocked Lawson to the court while both rose for the same pass; such a play should not warrant the potential for a four-point possession.
Somewhat ironically, the game played out almost as if the Nuggets were given the away-from-the-play foul. Lawson made the first free throw, intentionally missed the second free throw, and the Nuggets were given possession on the baseline after the ball went out of bounds on the carom off of Thunder forward Nick Collison. All of a sudden, Denver had the ball with a chance to tie or win. That fortuitous turn of events didn't quite pay off with a win, or make Westbrook the goat, as Denver's initial inbounds play was broken up. A desperation three from J.J. Hickson at the buzzer wasn't even close.
This endgame wasn't exactly the NBA at its finest: The game's final 39 seconds saw the teams combine to shoot a total of 12 free throws. Some thought Lawson shouldn't have been given the foul because he flopped, others thought he should have been given the away-from-the-play ruling and the referees were caught in the middle. They ultimately made the right determination (assuming there was contact by Westbrook), though likely confused many in the process. Imagine the controversy that would have ensued at Chesapeake Energy Arena had Hickson's prayer somehow gone in.