'Flagrants' foul up playoff picture

Two games. Two calls. Two series.

And at the end of the night, we were looking at a high likelihood of a Celtics-Magic Eastern Conference semifinals instead of a Bulls-Sixers pairing because of those two whistles. Both involved flagrant fouls that weren't called as such, both went in favor of the home team and both may very well end up swinging the series.

As luck would have it, of course, this came a day after I had written that officiating had been largely a nonissue through the first 10 days of the postseason, and what a pleasant change that was from the mediocrity we saw during the regular season.


Let's start with the foul seemingly everyone is talking about, the one by Rajon Rondo on Brad Miller at the end of the Chicago-Boston game. Bulls fans are up in arms. Rondo prevented a tying layup by slapping Miller upside the head, about the most blatantly obvious flagrant foul you could commit, yet the zebras called it a normal two-shot foul. They didn't even huddle about it.

Even the Celtics could hardly hide their amazement. "It was a great foul by Rondo," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You always talk about playoff basketball, no layups. Rondo did it on the very last play, and it won the game for us."

Sure, it was a great foul -- in 1982. Nowadays, it's supposed to be outlawed. Rivers may be right on that last point, though. After being knocked woozy by the foul and getting medical attention on his mouth on the sideline, Miller missed the first free throw. He pretty much had to take the shots because if he hadn't, the Celtics would have had their choice of which Bull to shoot the ball. Hello, Aaron Gray.

If the foul had been called a flagrant one, on the other hand, Miller could have signed off for the night and let coach Vinny Del Negro choose any Chicago player as his replacement shooter. Almost assuredly, the fill-in would have been Ben Gordon, who shot 86.4 percent during the regular season and has made 85.9 percent of free throws in his career. Gordon would have given Chicago about a 75 percent probability of tying the game.

Of course, it's possible Miller would have taken the shots himself and missed that first attempt anyway. If so, Chicago likely would have lost regardless of the call. The Bulls would have been down one point if he had made the second shot (rather than missing it intentionally) and inbounded with two seconds left and no timeouts remaining. The success rate of teams facing this situation is microscopic.

And had Gordon subbed for Miller and nailed both free throws, we probably still would have been looking at a second overtime and no more than a 50-50 proposition of Chicago prevailing.

In other words, to say that the flagrant call cost the Bulls the game isn't entirely accurate. They lost for many reasons -- such as blowing an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, or somehow not abandoning Tony Allen to double-team Paul Pierce after Ray Allen fouled out, or getting six turnovers from Derrick Rose. The flagrant call was a reason they lost, but it wasn't the reason. That's something for Bulls fans to keep in perspective.

Incidentally, it's likely not a suspension-worthy foul, so expect Rondo to play in Game 6. The league may very well upgrade it to a flagrant foul, which will take a speck-sized chunk out of his wallet, but otherwise would have no impact whatsoever on Game 6 or the outcome of Game 5.

As for the Magic-Sixers series, it's still likely the Sixers will get some delayed justice in the form of a Dwight Howard suspension for Thursday's Game 6. At the 9-minute, 15-second mark of the first quarter, Howard swung an elbow at the head of Philly's Samuel Dalembert, a move that normally calls for a Flagrant 2 and an automatic ejection. The officials saw the play but for some reason leveled only a technical foul on Howard.

Here's the problem I'd have if I were a Sixer: Wouldn't you much rather have Howard thrown out of the game in Orlando than the one in Philadelphia? No matter what, Philly came into Tuesday night's game needing to win once in Orlando to steal the series, and obviously that one win would have become much easier if Howard wasn't around for it.

Or look at it this way: The Sixers are capable of beating the Magic in Philly even if Howard plays. In the friendly confines of Amway Arena, however, their odds improve greatly if a variable such as "Howard ejected" comes into play.

As it was, Howard dominated the game with 24 points, 24 rebounds and numerous intimidations around the basket, allowing the Magic to prevail on a night when their 3-point shooters remained mysteriously cold.

Howard probably will miss Game 6, and the Sixers probably will win, setting up a rubber match back in O-Town on Saturday. But if you're Philly, you still have to wonder, "What if?" Had Howard been tossed right away, the Sixers could have a close-out game on their home floor Thursday. Instead, their best-case scenario is facing a full-strength Orlando team on the road in a Game 7.

And as a result of those two plays, the focus is once again right where the league doesn't want it -- on the officials. Through four games and 52 minutes, 58 seconds of a fifth, all anyone could talk about was how entertaining the Celtics-Bulls series was and the theatrical battles between Gordon and Allen, or between Rose and Rondo, or between Del Negro and logic.

One smack to the head up north and one elbow in an ear down south, and all that has changed. We can only hope it's an isolated incident, yet all of us fear it won't be.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.