The Cleveland Cavaliers dominated through three quarters over the Atlanta Hawks Sunday afternoon. With the opportunity to bring the magic number down to one in order to lock up the No. 1 seed atop the East, the wine and gold held a 26-point lead over their Eastern Conference foe, a lead that seemed impossible to lose. It would have been tough to blame anyone who was watching and decided to turn the game off—especially after a Kyrie Irving bucket put Cleveland up 17 with five minutes to go.
But then some weird things happened, almost all of which didn’t favor the Cavaliers.
While much of the blame can be placed on head coach Tyronn Lue’s team solely due to the fact that they surrendered a 26-point lead, part of the blame can also be placed on the referees as well, specifically Leroy Richardson. In the final minutes of regulation, Richardson had three crucial calls down the stretch, all of which didn’t go in the Cavs favor.
First of which: This jump ball.
Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving received an in-bound pass from LeBron James near the corner. Hawks’ Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap immediately attempted to trap Irving. While it was called a jump ball on the court, both of Atlanta’s players were out of bounds when touching the ball, which should have meant that it was Cleveland’s ball instead of a jump ball.
Both Hawks defenders were out of bounds on the final jump ball. pic.twitter.com/rLBCnks0ys
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) April 9, 2017
Making matters worse was James attempted to call a timeout immediately after inbounding the ball as he realized Irving would be in trouble. James stated after the game that Richardson would tell him he couldn’t tell who had possession of the ball at the time despite having just watched the entire play unfold. Calling an incorrect jump ball was much more of a priority.
“With the jump ball for Kyrie in the corner, I’m sitting right next to the ref [Leroy Richardson] and asking for a timeout, and the explanation he gave me, I never heard in my 14-year career,” said James. “Never. So it doesn’t take away from the fact that we still had a huge lead to start the fourth, but every play counts, no matter what is going on.”
The Hawks would win this jump ball and Atlanta’s Paul Millsap would drain a buzzer-beater to send the game in to overtime.
The second play in question was James’ sixth foul, which therefore meant that he fouled out and would be forced to sit on the bench for the remainder of the game. Here’s the foul—or lack thereof:
Following the game, James stated he had barely grazed Millsap.
“It wasn’t a foul,” James said. “I knew I had five [fouls]. I knew the ball was going long. So I may have grazed Millsap a little bit, but I mean, throughout the course of a game [that happens]. I didn’t push him or anything like that.”
The replays would corroborate this.
Last but not least, when Irving should have had an and-one with 12 seconds left in overtime. Instead of putting Irving — who has missed just one free-throw in overtime in his career — at the free-throw line with the chance to tie the game at 123, the Hawks were given possession holding a three-point lead. This call, by Richardson, came just moments after the same official attempted to whistle Kevin Love for a charge only to have the play sent to replay to find both feet of Atlanta’s Mike Dunleavy inside the restricted area.
Following the game, both James and Irving had plenty to say about the poor officiating. Although Uncle Drew admitted that he would somewhat keep his mouth shut so that he didn’t get fined, the fact that he even asked how much a fine was if he were to complain about the refs speaks for itself. James can aspect a fine from the league, but he can afford it. What he said had to be said by one of the Cavaliers.
Here’s what they both had to say:
The Cavs have plenty to blame on themselves after blowing that big of a lead in the final quarter after dominating the first 36 minutes, but the NBA will have to look long and hard at this one as the final two-minute report gets released.