Nobody who watched Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors could forget the final play of the game. Down 3 with less than a shot clock left, the Blazers left the ball in the hands of their super-closer, All-Star guard Damian Lillard. Lillard had defeated Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1 of the 2019 NBA Playoffs in a similar situation, canning an impossibly long shot for the victory. This time, needing a tie, Lillard stumbled under defensive pressure from veteran Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. Iguodala bumped Lillard off stride, forced him to the sideline, then stripped him of the ball on the shot attempt, ending the game.
Tim MacMahon of ESPN gives detailed quotes from Lillard’s post-game interview, including his thoughts on the decisive sequence.
“I know it’s a tough position for the referees to be in to make a call at that point in the game,” said Lillard, who finished with 23 points but didn’t score in the final 7 minutes, 42 seconds. “Tried to get a little bit of space the first time. He grabbed my arm, and I lost the ball a little bit. I regained it, and I was going to shoot it again. He got his hand on the ball.
“For me, as the offensive player, I felt like it was contact. There was a lot of contact. But obviously, the ref is not going to decide the game or jump in at that point. You know, so ... good defensive play.”
There’s no doubt that the final strip was clean. The contact in question came during the lead-up. Lillard’s arm was extended into Iguodala’s body and vice-versa, making a clean determination difficult. Both ends of Lillard’s assessment are accurate: there was a lot of contact and it was a good defensive play.
If the whistle had come on pre-shot contact, the Blazers would have received two free throws, not three. That wouldn’t have left them in much better position than they ended up in.
This is likely to become a Rorschach test determining which team you root for, but if you were going to make the call, would you blow a whistle or let the play stand?