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Video: Grey Area McGee Dunk Block Haunts End of Lakers-Blazers Game

Damian Lillard appeared to have a clear dunk...or did he?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night by a score of 114-110, but the finish was not without its share of controversy for Blazers fans.

At the 1:10 mark of the fourth quarter with the Blazers trailing 109-103, Damian Lillard went for a driving slam that didn’t quite get there, but was going in the cup anyway as a fingertip dunk. Lakers center Javale McGee swooped in and touched the ball. It was ruled a blocked shot. The Blazers ended up getting a single point out of the sequence, as offensive rebounds eventually put Jusuf Nurkic at the line, but a goaltending call would have rendered two points for Portland, seven seconds sooner in a tight contest.

Here’s the video of the play:

And here are the official rules on basket interference and goaltending (at least the sections that apply):

Section I-A Player Shall Not:

a. Touch the ball or the basket ring when the ball is using the basket ring as its lower base.

EXCEPTION: If a player near his own basket has his hand legally in contact with the ball, it is not a violation if his contact with the ball continues after the ball enters the cylinder, or if, in such action, he touches the basket.

b. Touch the ball when it is above the basket ring and within the imaginary cylinder.

c. For goaltending to occur, the ball, in the judgment of the official, must have a chance to score.

d. During a field goal attempt, touch a ball after it has touched any part of the backboard above ring level, whether the ball is considered on its upward or downward flight.

e. During a field goal attempt, touch a ball after it has touched the backboard below the ring level and while the ball is on its upward flight.

Note that the exception to Subsection A allows the offensive player to keep contact with the ball while dunking. It does not allow similar leeway for the defensive player. In practice, referees seldom call goaltending on clean blocks off of dunk attempts, though the letter of the law appears to say they should.

There may be a grey area here. Official rules say the “act of shooting” begins when the player raises his arms towards a shot attempt—thus allowing a shooting foul even if no shot leaves the player’s hand—but the rules do not define when the actual shot begins. Goaltending calls come on actual shots, not just on shot attempts. If a player were soaring through the air high above the rim, cupping the ball for a dunk, and another player blocked the attempt clean, goaltending would not be appropriate even if the attempted dunk had the ball on a downward arc towards the basket. In that case the rules would likely assume that the actual shot had not begun, thus there was no downward arc to interfere with.

The same unspoken wiggle room might be applied in common practice to dunks nearing the cylinder, especially since momentum on dunk attempts will usually carry the ball (and players’ hands) towards the rim. (Again, this is just speculation about a common practice, not an attempt to interpret the rules.)

Even if that were not so, however, there appears to be more complexity in the attempt from tonight’s game. Though Lillard’s fingers are still touching the side of the ball, the bottom of the ball clearly bounces off the rim, indicating that in some manner it was in free-ish flight before McGee touched it. That would mandate a goaltending call.

Then again, the bounce appears to rebound into Lillard’s fingers too, so there could be an argument that if the ball was free, it was offensive basket interference for the double touch.

Rule-keeping is in the eye of the beholder. Seen live, the play likely happened too fast and in too minute of an area for the referees to get more than a general impression. Even viewed repeatedly on tape, the evidence may not be crystal clear to overturn the de facto ruling of a blocked shot.

Either way, have at it. Do you believe this was a goaltend? If so, do you think it materially affected the outcome of the game and that the refs should have caught and/or reviewed it?