SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The ending of Game 2 between Oklahoma City and San Antonio produced a chaotic finish unlike anything seen before.
The quick version of a memorable final sequence of events: Spurs guard Manu Ginobili stepped on the sideline while attempting to defend the game's final inbounds play; Thunder guard Dion Waiters crossed the out-of-bounds plane and elbowed Ginobili while attempting the inbounds pass; San Antonio's Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard should have been called for fouls; and a shooting foul should have been called on Thunder forward Serge Ibaka as he tangled at the end with LaMarcus Aldridge.
According to the NBA, the officiating crew in San Antonio had five incorrect non-calls during the final 13.5 seconds of OKC's series-tying 98-97 victory.
And while fans, analysts and the NBA's last-two-minutes report had the benefit of watching replay after replay of the wild finish, which also included Oklahoma City's Steven Adams being pulled by a fan on the sideline, the game's officiating crew did not have the benefit of turning to the NBA's Replay Center, located in an office building 1,821 miles away in New Jersey.
As the rules are now, officials can call for a review only if a play falls into one of the NBA's 15 trigger scenarios, such as a clear-path-to-the-basket foul or a shot that goes in at the buzzer at the end of a quarter. In this case, none of the non-calls at the end of Game 2 in San Antonio fit into any trigger categories for replay. The crew could not have called for replay even if it wanted to.
The NBA Replay Center cannot call for a review either, even if a play falls within a trigger, because it has no way of contacting the officials on the court. The center's officials can communicate only with game referees who call for replays and put on headsets at an arena's scorer's table.
"On the floor, we did not see a foul on the play," lead referee Ken Mauer told a pool reporter after Game 2. "However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the [inbounds] play. It's a play we've never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play."
If any of those calls had fallen into one of the trigger categories, the Replay Center would have been all over it. Oklahoma City knows this firsthand. This was the Thunder's second frantic finish in this season's playoffs.
During Game 2 of the first-round series between the Thunder and Mavericks, Adams had a putback at the buzzer counted by officials at Oklahoma City. But in the Replay Center, replay officials had figured out that Adams' shot didn't count even before Danny Crawford's game crew walked to the scorer's table and put on a headset to automatically inquire.
In many cases, the reviews, like Adams' end-of-game shot, happen quicker than the time it takes to reheat a slice of pizza. ESPN.com was embedded in the Replay Center late in the regular season on a night when eight games were played. There were 19 reviews that night, many taking place so fast that by the time one walked over to see what was going on, the crew had come to a consensus.
In the only game so far in these playoffs to have a last-second, game-deciding shot, Replay Center officials and referee Zach Zarba, who was the referee in the center the night of the Thunder-Mavs game , rewound, paused and zoomed in on a camera angle from the far baseline that showed Adams' hand, the ball, clock and backboard light.
And it took "probably less than 30 seconds" for the Replay Center officials to rule that Dallas had escaped with an 85-84 win. While the Thunder went on to win the series 4-1, technology correctly kept the Mavericks from being swept.
"We were waiting on them," Joe Borgia, senior VP of replay and referee operations who oversees the Replay Center, said of waiting for Crawford's crew to walk to the scorer's table and put the headset on to inform them of the decision.
The OKC review was big, but it did not decide a series as it did last season when Paul Pierce's 3-pointer in Game 6 against Atlanta didn't count, knocking the Washington Wizards out in the second round. And the shot by Adams was easier to rule on than Pierce's, which was still on his fingertips as the buzzer went off.
"The Paul Pierce one was the closest," Borgia said of close playoff reviews since the Replay Center opened last season. "And we sent them home from the playoffs on that one."
With current NBA referees taking shifts in the Replay Center for the first time, reviews are getting faster. The average time was reduced from 42.1 seconds a year ago to 31.9 this season.
And with $15 million in the best technology bringing multiple camera angles from every arena, game officials have about a dozen more experienced eyes backing them up on tough calls that fall within the triggers.
Longtime referee Joey Crawford wonders how many buzzer-beaters he got wrong before the Replay Center was created.
"You start wondering [after working in the Replay Center], 'How many of them did I have that I screwed up for 39 years?'" Crawford said while discussing his pending retirement at the end of this season. "Now you can go over here and get it right. That is what hit me. I am saying to myself ... has to be hundreds where you got it wrong, the out-of-bounds play, the last-second shot."
The Replay Center looks like the kind of CIA security nerve center seen in "Homeland," only instead of Carrie Mathison pacing the room asking to freeze a picture and zoom in to identify a suspect, Borgia is the one looking for the perfect camera angle to figure out whether a player's deep shot was a 3, who last touched the ball before it went out of bounds or if a shot left a player's hand before the buzzer.
The 2,300 square-foot room has 94 Samsung monitors, including 16 wall-to-wall flat screens, and 20 work stations with as many as four monitors at each replay operator's station.
Officials have the technology to break down any play, click-by-click down to one-sixtieth of a second, and can zoom to magnify it up to 600 times. They also have access to the television trucks at each game.
Borgia researched and visited other professional sports replay centers, including the NFL's. It led him to design the NBA center with an elevated platform for game managers, basketball operations execs and referees to watch everything while game operators are located at stations a couple steps below on the perimeter of the platform. The amount of lighting in the room is calculated for the best possible viewing.
So when Pierce buried that 3 against the Hawks last year, Borgia's crew was able to see, with two clicks of a button, that the ball was still on his fingertips.
"One click is as close as you get," Borgia said. "That is one-sixtieth of a second. Steven Adams' [putback at the buzzer against Dallas] was five clicks. Five clicks is less than a tenth of a second. When you watch it in real time, most people thought it was good. Even us [watching in real time], because by the time you react to the light and horn, you think it is good. But in the replay world, five clicks is an eternity.
"Thank God [the Pierce shot] wasn't one click," Borgia said. "We've had about 50 plays decided by one-sixtieth of a second (one click), which is hard to believe but true. Was the ball out of his finger tips before zero? [The Pierce shot] was two clicks. So for us, he was way late."
Bob Delaney, the NBA's VP of referee development and performance, has seen this kind of technology used elsewhere in life and death situations. Before he was an NBA referee, Delaney was an undercover police officer in New Jersey, where he spent many nerve-wracking, life-threatening nights bringing informants to police surveillance rooms disguised as trucking company offices in the '70s.
"In 2009, I went to Iraq [for a tour]," says Delaney, whose undercover work helped lead to indictments of members of the Genovese and Bruno crime families. "[The military] brought me into the facility where the drones were operated. So I saw the drones take off, how they are propelled, they would float over the city of Mosul and go up the streets. [The operators] go up and down, look for the terrorists, also know and always monitor where their troops are at all times.
"This kind of technology being used here is similar to the way the military does it with drones," said Delaney, standing amid the flat screens and video dashboards. "Over there, they are playing video games with life and death situations. Here we got the video games, but it is about the game of basketball."
How It Works
While the Replay Center watches every play of every game, all reviews must be initiated by referees at their respective games, even if those in the Replay Center might see a missed call while watching a game.
"We cannot make that call from here," Borgia said. "We have no way of contacting the referees on the court. They have to initiate all replays."
"Clear and conclusive" visual evidence is required to overturn any original call made by officials. There are also 15 types of situations, called "triggers," that can spur a ref to seek a review, such as on a clear-path-to-the-basket foul.
In the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and last two minutes of any overtime, there are automatic triggers such as out-of-bounds, goaltending/basket interference and more. Any shot that goes in at the buzzer at the end of a quarter is another automatic replay trigger.
Delaney officiated a memorable 2002 playoff game in which Reggie Miller banked in a miraculous 35-foot shot at the end of regulation, forcing overtime during a then do-or-die Game 5 of a first-round series between the Nets and Pacers.
One television replay showed that the heave barely beat the clock; another replay seen on television showed the ball in Miller's hands with the shot-clock red light lit.
"David Stern came in the locker room [afterward] and said, 'We're getting replay!'" Delaney recalled, referring to the former commissioner.
Replay came into effect the next season. The Replay Center was eventually created in 2014-15. While replay continues to improve, it's not universally loved.
"Look, I'm not a replay guy," Detroit head coach Stan Van Gundy said this season. "If it were up to me in all the sports, we would get rid of all of it. And I sort of came to that in my two years out of coaching, sitting and watching games, college and pro, it is infuriating watching the last two minutes take 20 minutes and stuff and going to the monitor four times in the last two minutes. It is like, damn, can we just play this basketball game?"
Van Gundy was recently fined $25,000 by the league for public criticism of officials during the Pistons' first-round series loss to Cleveland. He intimated in an in-game interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters that LeBron James receives favorable calls.
Before the playoffs, Van Gundy said that while the replay process has sped up and that he doesn't mind how the NBA administers replay, he still would rather do without it.
"I know the rationale is we want to get it right, but that's only partially true anyway," Van Gundy said. "Because we're not reviewing foul calls and non-foul calls, which are the most important calls. We don't care about getting those right. So why are we going to worry about the rest of it? I don't get it. We've selected certain calls at certain times in the games that we want to get right. And for the other 46 minutes of the game, and for certain calls in the last two minutes, I guess we don't care if we get it right.
"So we cannot inbound in the backcourt for 46 minutes, but with two minutes to go, we can," Van Gundy added. "I can grab guys the entire game and foul them, but I can't do that in the last two minutes. We're not reviewing every call until the last two minutes. That, I don't get. To me, it would seem like whatever the rules of the game you choose to play by, let's play by them for the entire game. So that just doesn't make sense to me. But obviously, it makes sense to everyone else, and so we have the rule."
Van Gundy probably wouldn't have the patience to be one of the game operators in charge of watching every moment of their assigned game each night.
Described by Borgia as "basketball junkies," the operators have to keep their eyes on the officials at that game the entire time, even during timeouts and commercial breaks, in case an official raises his or her arm and twirls a finger to signal for a review once play stops.
The operators are not referees, but they flag any potentially reviewable play they see, which shows up on a timeline for each game. In many cases, the referees and replay managers go over plays that were flagged in case game referees call for a review.
"While the game is going on, we are a continuous game [in the center]," Borgia said. "Most of our two-three's (two-pointer or three-pointer) are reviewed during timeouts and period breaks, so we have the answer before the referee on the court puts the headset on."
Let's Go To The Video
With close to 20 people in the Replay Center on a recent night watching eight games, Borgia oversaw a crew of three referees as they deftly handled two reviews at once.
On this night, during a Philadelphia-Detroit game, Pistons center Andre Drummond missed a free throw and Jerami Grant and Stanley Johnson both went for the rebound. Johnson tried to grab it with both hands as Grant's left arm got in between and appeared to hit the ball at the same time. The initial call on the court was Sixers' ball.
At the same time, during a Clippers-Hawks game, Atlanta's Jeff Teague was called for a foul that was reviewed to see if it was a flagrant foul. The Replay Center crew needed 38 seconds to determine it did not meet the flagrant foul criteria.
The out-of-bounds play, a situation considered to be among the trickiest for NBA referees and the Replay Center, drew Borgia's immediate attention.
Within one minute and 12 seconds, the three NBA officials came to a consensus that the ball last hit Grant, making it Detroit's ball. They double-checked the time when the ball went out of bounds and relayed to the officiating crew at the game to overturn the call.
Seconds later, Pistons public address announcer John Mason could be heard delivering one of his patented calls, "Deeeeeee-troit bas-ket-baaaaall!"
Borgia says the longest of the 2,296 plays reviewed this season took five minutes, 13 seconds to sort out. That's because there was a player altercation during the Clippers-Knicks game on Jan. 22.
While the Oklahoma City-Dallas Game 2 finish was the first big end-of-game review of the playoffs, Borgia's crew is ready for more to come as long as they fall within the triggers. Unfortunately, the ending in Game 2 in San Antonio on Monday night did not fall within any of the triggers.
"The worst feeling as a referee is to go home knowing you made a call that cost a team a game," Borgia said. "I was asked not too long ago, what was the best call you ever made? I couldn't tell you. But I can tell you the worst call I ever made. It [involved] the Nets, and I called goaltending when [Charles] Barkley took a Hail Mary shot, and I called goaltending, and it shouldn't have been goaltending.
"And to this day, 26 years later, it still bothers me. Nowadays, you just hope it is one of the triggers to allow you to come to replay to get it right."