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One Play, One Missed Call, One Season On The Line

On Tuesday night, the Dallas Mavericks played host to the Golden State Warriors for a game that had huge playoff implications. With a win, the Mavericks would’ve pulled within one game of the Warriors, giving them a fighting chance of stealing the sixth seed right out of their back pocket. But more importantly, they would’ve stayed in the running of avoiding the death sentence that is playing the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder in the first-round by separating themselves further from the two resilient teams tugging at their co-tails: the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.

In a turbulent Western Conference where every win and loss from here on out could be the difference between extending the season and watching the playoffs from the confines of their humble abode’s, the Mavericks found themselves in a good position late. With 3:24 to go in the fourth, they took a 102-97 lead after Monta Ellis sent the American Airlines Center into a frenzy with a tomahawk dunk over Jermaine O’Neal. But in true Warriors fashion, that lead didn’t last long, and the Mavericks’ demons came back to haunt them. Klay Thompson knocked down two open threes. Andre Iguodala launched one up, taking advantage of some sagging defense. Draymond Green found himself wide-open underneath the basket for an uncontested layup. Just like that, the game was gridlocked at 108-108, and overtime was in the books – a place that hasn’t been kind to the Mavericks this season.

The final five minutes proved to be much of the same. The two teams exchanged blows until it was all tied up with 28.5 seconds to go, but it was then when the walls came crashing down. Monta Ellis drove to the basket, floated a shot over the outstretched hands of Jermaine O’Neal, only to have it snatched out of the air on what looked like a dubious no-call. It then set the Warriors up for the final possession, which is when Stephen Curry took control, nailing a step-back jumper that silenced the crowd.

122-120. Ball game.

It was a miserable end to the longest home stand in Mavericks franchise history. They split the eight games and all four losses were decided by merely a few points. They gave up numerous leads and crumbled apart in three overtimes. Dirk Nowitzki described those losses as “gut punches.” In what was meant to be a chance to further differentiate themselves from the pack, the Mavericks struggled because of their shoddy defense. As a result, they find themselves back in familiar territory – a three-team tie with the Grizzlies and Suns at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.

But truthfully, it wasn’t meant to be this way. Upon replay, it was clear that O’Neal’s block was a goaltend, and who knows how the game would’ve ended had the right call been made. Perhaps Stephen Curry wouldn’t have reached into their bodies and ripped their hearts out, only to eat them for dinner when he got home later that night. Or perhaps the Mavericks would’ve won and the momentum moving forward would be in their favor. Either way, less than 24 hours after thousands of defeated Mavericks fans fled the scene in downtown Dallas, the league made an announcement everyone was expecting.

Upon review at the league office, we have found that a shot taken by Dallas’ Monta Ellis with 16.0 seconds remaining in overtime was on the way down when initially contacted and ruled a block by Golden State’s Jermaine O’Neal, and should have been ruled a goaltend,” NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said in a statement.

via ESPN.com | Refs missed critical call, NBA admits

While the increase in transparency since Adam Silver took over the throne is a welcoming sign to all (especially Mark Cuban who has been banging on that drum since he became a household name) the admittance that the referees missed a call didn’t take the sting out of the wound – the damage had been done, and the Mavericks’ season now hangs by a thread as a result. With only six games remaining on their schedule, four of which are away, the Mavericks find themselves with only a half-game lead over the Suns and Grizzlies. Their next three games are almost giveaways, all on the road against lottery-destined teams. But after that, they’ll have a two-game home stand against the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns, only to close the season with a matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies in the grind house.

A win over the Warriors sure would’ve softened the blow.

The call itself was indeed a difficult one to make, but at the time, it appeared as though the referees did the right thing by swallowing their whistles. Based on the trajectory of Monta Ellis’ shot, as well O’Neal’s timing, as he snatched the ball out of the air in the split second it started making its decent, it took a multitude of replays to prove that it was, in fact, a goaltend. Being able to see that with the naked eye was a tall task at best, but perceptible nonetheless. But, if anything, the play is a microcosm of this wild playoff race. The call itself was incredibly close. Likewise, the odds that the Mavericks and Grizzlies will knock the Suns off of their feet by the regular season’s end seems inevitable. But it’s oh-so-close. The wrap on the Suns is that they are too naive, too young, too unexperienced to understand they are not meant to be in this position. They’ve been kicked down so many times before, but here they are, fighting for their lives in a season where they have been written off time and time again.

Just over the last few days, we’ve seen how close this race really is. Following their loss, the Mavericks fell two spots from seventh to ninth. Luckily for them, the Suns and Grizzlies dropped their games on Wednesday night, helping the Mavericks climb back up to the seventh seed. Without even lacing up their shoes, they went from bystanders to the front-runners in this slugfest. And with a win at the Staples Center last night against the Clippers, they’ve given themselves a slight cushion, albeit a slight one. However, with the Nuggets in town to take on the Grizzlies tonight and the Suns on the road for a matchup against the Trail Blazers, where they hold the 2-1 series lead, the feathers are starting to poke out again.

Over the next two weeks, each of those teams will be pushed to their limits. They all have tough schedules ahead of them, some in the form of gruelling road trips, others with home games against teams with championship aspirations. And as if that wasn’t enough, they’ll also play against each other in the closing days of the regular season, in what could be the make-or-break-moments for them all. But no matter what happens, how this all boils down, the vision of Jermaine O’Neal raising his lanky arms a foot over the rim to pull down Ellis’ shot will act as a reminder of what could have been. After all, that missed call could wind up being the difference between them getting the L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs in the first-round. But even worse than that, it could be what sends them home packing when their regular season comes to a close on April 16th.

It’s amazing how one single play on an 82-game schedule can change the course of a team’s entire season, but I can’t say it’s a big surprise.

Scott Rafferty