Confusion over rule costs Hornets chance to go for tie

Plenty can happen inside the final second of an NBA game.

A player can make a game-winning shot.

A head coach can eliminate his team’s opportunity to win by not knowing a rule.

Both happened in a frenzied finish to Sunday’s Portland-New Orleans game at the Rose Garden.

Damian Lillard drained a long 3-pointer to break a 92-92 tie and give the Trail Blazers an apparent 95-92 victory over the Hornets.

After an official review, .3 of a second was placed back on the time clock.

By NBA rules, it was enough time — albeit barely — for the Hornets to get off a 3-point shot to tie the game and send it into overtime.

But during a timeout, New Orleans coach Monty Williams instructed Anthony Davis — who would inbound the ball in frontcourt — to throw a lob pass to Lance Thomas at the basket. Thomas laid it in as time expired, and Portland had a 95-94 victory.

When he met with the media afterward, Williams had this to say about the game’s conclusion:

“You need 0.4 (of a second) to really get a shot off, so we’re just running execution. They were grabbing and holding Ryan, so it’s going to be tough for him to get off a three. So we’re just working on execution at that point. Based on the rules, you need 0.4 to even get off a look. You have to tap it, basically, to get a shot. It’s one of those situations where you just try to work on something that you may need in the future.”

Except it’s not. A team requires 0.3 to get off a shot, not 0.4.

The rule was implemented in 1990 after, with 0.1 of a second on the clock, New York’s Trent Tucker took an in-bounds pass and sank a 3-pointer to beat Chicago 109-106. NBA executives met soon thereafter and determined it takes at least .3 of a second to catch and shoot. A new rule was enacted requiring at least .3 of a second to remain for a player to catch and shoot, but a team could score off a tip of a pass at the basket with .1 of .2 of a second left.

However unlikely that the Hornets could catch and make a 3-pointer to tie in the final 0.3 of a second Sunday night, it was their only chance to win.

And the referees probably decided to put 0.3 of a second back on the clock — instead of 0.2 or 0.1 — precisely to give the visitors a chance to shoot rather than be forced to tip in a lob pass.

But Williams — the former Trail Blazer assistant coach — didn’t know the rule. Apparently, neither did his assistants, or surely somebody would have influenced him to go for a miracle three rather than concede defeat.

New Orleans had Anderson, who had already sank 7 of 10 3-point shots in the game, as its No. 1 threat from beyond the arc. Surely, the Blazers would have done everything possible to prevent him from getting the inbounds pass.

The Hornets could still have set picks to to get the ball to Anderson. Or they could have used him as a decoy and gone to Greivas Vasquez, a 35-percent 3-point shooter, or rookie Austin Rivers, whose 3-point shot with 42 seconds left tied the score at 92-92.

Instead, Davis inbounded to Thomas for a meaningless 2-pointer at the buzzer.

I caught up with Williams after he had already addressed the media on the final play and asked for an explanation.

“How many seconds do you need to get off a jump shot right?” he asked. “Point-3? The Derek Fisher rule was point-4, right? The way they’re guarding Ryan, it’s tough to be able to throw it to him and get a shot off.”

But you can’t win with a two.

“Yeah, but who’s to say we’re going to get it to Ryan and get off a shot? Who’s our best 3-point shooter?” Williams countered.

It doesn’t make any sense, though, not to go for a three in that instance.

“Even if we go for a three and he catches it, how’s he going to get it off with .3?” Williams asked.

But you can’t win otherwise.

“OK,” Williams said. “It was my decision. Sorry if you don’t agree with it.”

I’ve always been a Monty Williams fan and consider him a bright young coach. In this case, though, it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with the decision. He simply blew it. Somebody offered afterward that perhaps Williams was hoping Thomas would get fouled as he sank his game-ending layup. That simply wasn’t going to happen.

Lillard made the most of his opportunity in the clutch — not surprising in what is wearing the look of a season of destiny for the rookie point guard.

The Hornets had battled back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit to tie the count in the final minute. On a night when Lillard’s shot wasn’t falling — he finished 5 for 14 from the field — he had missed a three with 32 seconds left and the score still tied.

The Blazers got the ball back, though, and called timeout with 11.5 seconds remaining. The Hornets, who had a foul to give, fouled Lillard intentionally with 4.2 seconds to go.

During a timeout, Portland coach Terry Stotts drew up the same play that beat Cleveland in double overtime on Dec. 1, with Batum cutting off a pick and scoring from the corner.

Lillard couldn’t get the ball to Batum. The second option was to inbound to Luke Babbitt and have him hand the ball back to Lillard. That’s what happened. Lillard swished his 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Anderson.

“Luke did a good job of coming to the ball,” Lillard said. “He handed it back to me and I was able to get a good look.

“When I let it go, I got it over the top of (Anderson's) hands. I was like, ‘That looks good. That’s going in.’ “

Said Batum: “That was a good play to run, but I knew I would be denied (the ball by the Hornets). I knew Damian would be wide open. What a huge shot.”

Bedlam occurred as the Blazers and the jubilant crowd of 18,772 thought the game was over.

It wasn’t — but because of Williams’ decision, it was.

“We bent, but we didn’t break,” Stotts said after the Blazers improved their record to 11-12 with their third straight victory. “I was pleased with that. We got the lead to 16 and had some loose possessions. We could have pushed our lead a little bit more. That bit us as the game went forward.”

Portland got terrific performances from J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum in the win.

Hickson scored a season-high 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds — eight off the offensive glass — in just 31 minutes.

“J.J. was fantastic,” Stotts said. “Offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding — on a night where we struggled to rebound, he was really important.”

“I love to play with J.J.” Batum said. “I have a good connection with him. He’s a beast on the boards. We know we’re going to get another shot in any possession because he’s in there fighting for offensive rebounds.”

Batum, meanwhile, contributed 11 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five blocked shots in 42 minutes. It was his second straight career high in assists after getting eight in Portland’s win over San Antonio Thursday night. He becomes the first NBA player with at least 10 assists, five steals and five blocks in a game since Jamaal Tinsley in November 2001.

“One of my hopes for him is to expand his role as a facilitator, a playmaker, not just a scorer or catch-and-shoot guy,” Stotts said. “He relishes that versatility.

“On top of that, he was pretty good in every defensive assignment he had tonight. He’s doing a little bit of everything, which is the direction I’d like him to go.”

Batum, who has dealt with back issues for a couple of weeks, said his physical limitations have contributed to a different role.

“I’ve tried to adjust my game,” he said. “I haven’t been able to play the same way because of my back the last couple of games. I’ve tried to effect the game in different ways — try to make more assists and create something and dish and move the ball.”

The back, Batum said, “is a little bit better, but I have to play through it again. It’s still bothering me a lot.”

Injuries have piled up on the Blazers. Wesley Matthews, who had missed the previous two games with a hip problem, started Sunday but departed after 3 1/2 minutes and didn’t return. He said he felt something in the hip as he moved around a pick on defense and didn’t want to risk further injury.

“I didn’t set myself back,” Matthews said. “I’m getting closer (to recovery).”

LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 20 points, went down in the final minute Sunday with a sprained left ankle. X-rays were negative.

The Blazers don’t play again on this six-game homestand until Thursday’s date with Denver, so there is time for the wounded to heal up.

For the Hornets, who have lost seven straight to fall to 5-18, there is some solace in the comeback Sunday night, even in defeat. And Williams now surely understands an important NBA rule that will leave him better-prepared should it come up in the future.

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