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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: The Rockets Make a Mountain Out of a Missed Call

Officials incorrectly denied James Harden a made dunk. That was all Houston needed to mount a full-blown protest of the entire game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

It looked like James Harden had short-circuited. With 7:55 left in the fourth quarter of an early-December game against the Spurs that the Rockets were leading by 13 points, Harden corralled a loose ball and broke toward San Antonio’s basket. He coasted for a dunk, but the ball went in so forcefully that it spun back up and rattled around the rim as if it hadn’t gone in. Harden chased after the rebound; it seemed like even he thought he’d missed the easy finish.

But a blooper that would’ve simply made the rounds on Twitter turned into a Zapruder film. The play was called basket interference, because, referee James Capers argued later, the ball didn’t appear to make it through the net. Harden and other Rockets complained to officials, but they were not granted a review. The miscall ignited into a full-blown controversy after Houston capsized at the end of the game. Lonnie Walker IV suddenly turned into prime Tony Parker with hops down the stretch, and the Spurs overcame a double-digit lead to win by two in double-overtime. After reviewing the tape postgame, Capers acknowledged that Harden’s dunk had gone in, but because the Rockets didn’t challenge during the 30 seconds after the call, they couldn’t review or change it. The Rockets wasted no time in putting out their side of the story:

Nothing but respect for the arrogance shown by this Rockets source in being “optimistic” that the NBA would just give Houston the win because of a missed dunk in the fourth quarter. The Rockets went on to officially protest the game after the league didn’t “take action.” It was on-brand for the Rockets. During last season’s playoffs, Houston audited the referee calls from Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, against the Warriors, and argued they had been robbed of a Finals trip. By comparison, protesting one missed call during a regular-season game they squandered was child’s play.

The Rockets’ commitment to being the villains is impressive. Houston’s identity centers on being as grating as possible. From their rigid playing style, which focuses on exploiting the rule book, to having a literal red carpet and DJ playing them into the arena for home games, it feels like they relish riling people up. On the one hand, I can’t help but appreciate their willingness to sacrifice their approval rating for any kind of edge. On the other, they’re basically laying out a welcome mat for the haters.

The Rockets were right: The ball went in and Houston should have been given a basket, or at least a review. They probably would have gone on to win the game. And if they did, they would have jumped two spots in the current Western Conference standings and obtained home-court advantage on the Jazz in the first round. But when you become known for always trying to exploit an inefficiency, you run the danger of becoming known for those things as opposed to, you know, being good at basketball.