With 13 seconds remaining in a tied, overtime game between the Warriors and Mavericks on Tuesday, Jermaine O'Neal rose and snatched Monta Ellis' runner out of the air. Dallas' players threw up their arms in exasperation with the lack of a goaltending call, and by Wednesday they were heard.
Although Golden State went on to win the game on the ensuing possession by way of a Stephen Curry buzzer-beater, the league office has since ruled that O'Neal's block should indeed have been called a goaltend. From the NBA's official statement:
Upon review at the league office, we have found that a shot taken by Dallas’ Monta Ellis with 16.0 seconds remaining in overtime was on the way down when initially contacted and ruled a block by Golden State’s Jermaine O’Neal, and should have been ruled a goaltend. The exact trajectory of the ball when touched was impossible to ascertain with the naked eye, and the play was not reviewable.
In fairness, the play was almost impossible to call with certainty in real time. With the benefit of the perfect angle and slow motion replay, viewers at home (and at the American Airlines Center) could see that the ball had just begun its descent when O'Neal made contact. It was indeed a goaltend, and the lack of a call there could very well have cost the Mavericks the game. Still, this wasn't at all an egregious mistake on the part of the game's officiating crew no matter the stakes in terms of the game's result and the Western Conference playoff race.
That aside, there are two notable issues with the way this sequence was officiated. First and foremost: If Danny Crawford, Sean Corbin, and Eric Dalen thought this was a borderline call at the time, why not whistle a goaltend so that the play might be reviewed? The statement from the league notes that the play could not be reviewed and technically that's true. But the NBA instituted replay potential on late-game goaltending calls specifically to address cases like this one by way of the (unofficially named) "LaMarcus Aldridge Rule." Why not make the call and take advantage of that second look if it seemed that the call could have gone either way?
Second, the explanation given by Crawford after the game, per Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, has less to do with the shot's downward arc and more to do with poor perception of the attempt's trajectory. From Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:
“I think his layup has a chance to get to the rim, and if that’s the case, you can’t just get it out of the air,” Nowitzki said. “To me, that’s a goaltend. I asked the referees what happened. The explanation was that the ball was two feet short. If that’s the case, then he can get it out of the air, but where I was from, I think it had a chance to at least hit the rim. That’s a goaltend to me.”
Odd. There wasn't any reason in real time to think that Ellis' attempt wouldn't at least catch rim, and the contrary stance becomes even less defensible when the play is viewed from an alternate angle:
Officiating the NBA game at live speed is no easy task. Mistakes will be made, as is only natural when human beings make judgment calls on the precise timing and positioning of some of the most impressive athletes in the world. Every play is a muddle of quick, physical moves, and I do not envy the men and woman who have to decide the legality of it all. That said, the explanation given to Nowitzki by Crawford is an especially bad read on this play that goes well beyond the question of whether the ball was ascending or descending. That in itself is a tough call. But essentially deciding a game on the incorrect perception that this attempt would come up several feet short of the rim? That's the wrong call.