But there is mounting doubt as to whether that should be considered the game’s pivotal play.
We love controversy. And Waiters leaning into Ginobili with an elbow to get off his wayward pass was controversial. Players, coaches and all four members of the TNT studio broadcast team said they’d never seen a play like it in all their basketball years.
Even NBA crew chief Ken Mauer said he’d never seen it before.
“On the floor, we did not see the foul on the play,” Mauer told a pool reporter after the game. “However, upon review we realize and we agree that we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play that we have never seen before, ever, but we feel we should have had an offensive foul on Waiters.”
Two main reasons why Waiters’ elbow to Ginobili’s chest should not be the narrative coming out of this game.
One, the Spurs actually stole the inbounds pass and had more than 10 seconds — and a timeout — to collect themselves offensively and put together a productive possession. Instead, San Antonio panicked a bit, passing the ball around for Patty Mills’ miss of a contested 3. The rebound pinballed around under the bucket until the clock expired.
Even with the controversy, the Spurs had their shot and missed.
Two, officials missed a good amount of calls throughout the game — not the least of which was Ginobili’s foot on the line as he crowded Waiters. That’s a violation. Defenders are supposed to give the inbounder ample space, and Waiters had none. Thus Waiters’ thinking he needed a clear-out elbow, which Mauer said should have been a simple offensive foul and turnover, and should have awarded San Antonio the ball out of bounds.
Former NBA executive vice president and TNT analyst Stu Jackson issued a series of tweets, quoting NBA rules 8 and 10 of Section III, explaining that Waiters committed a violation (“until ball has crossed the plane of the boundary, no player shall have any part of his person over the boundary line”), acknowledging it was an “unusual play that probably caught ref by surprise” and that the ref was probably looking at Waiters’ feet, not his elbows, and that a photo shows Ginobili’s “foot stepping over line before Waiters contact. That is also a violation. No player may cross”.
Here’s the photo to which Jackson refers:
Refs also missed Kevin Durant getting whacked in the head on a fast-break dunk earlier in the game (on replay, you can clearly see Durant’s head rock sideways upon contact). They also fell for Mills’ flop that drew a charge on Waiters (Mills slid out into Waiters’ path). And as Durant elevated to catch Waiters’ fateful pass, he did draw contact from Danny Green that ended up putting Durant on the floor. A handful of calls — either missed or called in error — happen every game. For Magic Johnson and others to suggest it was the worst call in playoff history is just silly.
This game wasn’t won or lost by Waiters’ unprecedented elbow on an inbounds play that could have been whistled in OKC’s favor either before (Ginobili’s foot) or after (Green’s foul on Durant), or rendered moot by a Spurs 3-on-1 layup or a Mills 3-pointer or putback.
It was won by the Thunder defense, San Antonio’s off shooting night, OKC’s rebounding, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams’ aggregate inside presence (10-of-16 shooting, 18 rebounds and three blocks), and the resilience of Durant and Westbrook to bounce back (a combined 57 points on 22-of-44 shooting with 14 rebounds and 14 assists) from a miserable Game 1.