Being awarded a free throw at a key moment is no guarantor of success, as Omer Asik of the Chicago Bulls can attest. So can Al Horford. However, Horford and the Atlanta Hawks looked to have a strong case for an additional free throw attempt in the waning moments of their series-ending 83-80 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the first-round NBA playoff series.
Trailing by two points with just 3.1 seconds remaining on the clock, the Hawks were inbounding the ball beneath the Celtics' basket. Mercurial swingman Marvin Williams was the inbounder while his teammates Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague attempted to get open.
As Williams was inbounding the ball -- or perhaps just before he threw it in -- a whistle sounded, triggered by a foul from Marquis Daniels of the Celtics against Horford. TNT announcer and former NBA coach Mike Fratello quickly grasped the significance of the foul as Daniels looked around nervously. Fratello told viewers that "if that was out of bounds and the ball was not passed in [then] that's two shots."
According to the NBA rulebook, however, a foul by a defensive team before the ball is inbounded in the final two minutes of a game (or during overtime) results in just one free throw attempt as well as the possession. Nevertheless, that shot -- taken by any player on the floor for the Hawks -- is extremely precious given the circumstances.
(1) A personal foul and team foul shall be assessed and one free throw attempt shall be awarded. The free throw may be attempted by any player in the game at the time the personal foul was committed.
After a prolonged discussion among the gaggle of refs, the Hawks were handed back the ball but awarded no free throw. Although Fratello had already pointed out during a replay that he believed that the foul occurred before Williams passed the ball in, he explained to viewers that the referees must have determined that the foul by Daniels against Horford had occurred after the ball had been released.
"That is an unbelievably fortunate call for the Boston Celtics," Fratello conceded.
WATCH VIDEO ABOVE
Looking at the video above it certainly appears that the foul occurred, and the whistle was blown, before Williams threw the ball in to Smith. Even Kevin Garnett, who had been defending Smith, seemed to loosen up his defensive coverage due to the whistle, allowing Smith to catch the ball relatively unmolested and seemingly en route to an undefended rim.
Given a chance to inbound the ball again, this time from the sideline rather than beneath the basket, Willams looped a ball over Daniels, who was trying to front Horford. The All-Star center was fouled again. Unfortunately for the Hawks, there was no choosing which player would take the shot. Horford missed the first attempt. With his team still trailing by two points with just two seconds on the clock, he inexplicably made the second. Two made free throws by Paul Pierce would ice the game and seal the series for the Celtics, who advance to play the 76ers.
UPDATE 8:24 p.m. EST: The Associated Press reports that the NBA admits that the referees made a mistake. The NBA confirmed that the foul committed by Marquis Daniels against Al Horford occurred before the ball was thrown in bounds and that the Hawks should have been awarded a free throw attempt as well as possession of the ball. The Hawks trailed the Celtics, 81-79 when the foul occurred with 3.1 seconds remaining on the clock.