James Harden rose for an uncontested dunk. It went into the basket with great downward force, as so many of his others have before. Then came an apparent violation of some of the fundamental laws of physics.
The ball passed through the hoop, but then spun upward back to the top of the rim, where it bounced twice before caroming away, giving the impression of a missed shot.
The ball clearly passed through the hoop before its odd levitation, but the ruling on the court was no basket, to the Rockets’ disbelief. Coach Mike D’Antoni protested and tried to challenge the call but was denied.
Every point mattered in the game, which went to double overtime before the Spurs defeated Harden’s Rockets, 135-133, on Tuesday night.
The blown call has now prompted calls for the game to be awarded to the Rockets, or to be replayed from the 7:50 mark of the fourth quarter, when the dunk was disallowed.
“When the play happened, Harden goes in for a dunk, and then the ball appears to us to pop back through the net,” James Capers, one of the game’s referees, told a pool reporter. “When that happens, that is basket interference. To have a successful field goal, it must clear the net.”
But he added: “We have since come in here and looked at the play. He dunked it so hard that the net carried it back over the rim a second time, so in fact it did clear the net and should have been a successful field goal.”
Capers said the play could not be reviewed because the 30-second window for challenges passed while the Rockets protested.
“I heard that they said the ball hit James and went back through, so it was a goal tend on James,” D’Antoni told reporters after the game. “Then another guy said it wasn’t a goal tend; it went out of bounds on us.”
The dunk and the controversy overshadowed a wild game. The Rockets were up, 102-89, at the time of the dunk, yet managed to lose that lead.
Bryn Forbes of the Spurs missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation, and Harden missed one at the end of the first overtime. The Spurs ended up winning the game on two free throws with no time left on the clock by Lonnie Walker.
Harden wound up with 50 (or 52, if you count the dunk). Walker had 28 off the bench for the Spurs; his previous career high was 16. Dunk aside, it was not Harden’s best game; he shot .289 from the floor and 4 for 20 (.200) on 3-pointers.
Should the N.B.A. decide to resume the game from the moment of the bad call, it would not be the first time. In 2008, the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks replayed the last 51 seconds of the overtime of a game because Shaquille O’Neal was incorrectly fouled out. The Hawks won the original game by 6. They won the replay by 3 after neither team scored a point.
Oddly enough, O’Neal wasn’t around to play the seconds that he had mistakenly lost. In the interim between games, the Heat had traded him away.