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ATLANTA - Anybody ready for another protest in Atlanta?
Let's set the scene. With 0.5 seconds left in a tie game, the Raptors designed a gorgeous inbounds play -- one they hadn't run all season -- that resulted in a lob to the shortest man on the floor, T.J. Ford. He was wiiiiiiide open, went up, caught the ball and laid it in, and the Raptors celebrated what appeared to be their fourth win in five tries. Only a mandatory replay was left to confirm Toronto's victory.
And that's where things got a little hairy. The replay clearly showed that Ford released the ball just the tiniest fraction of a second after time expired. But that was only because the clock started at least a tenth of a second too soon, and showed 0.4 by the time Ford's hands hit the ball. The refs overruled the bucket, the game went to overtime, and Atlanta emerged with a 127-120 victory.
Raptors coach Sam Mitchell was upset with the ruling afterward because the basket had been called good on the floor. By his pretty convincing logic, the officials shouldn't have felt compelled to overrule the bucket once they saw the clock started too early. The Raptors were seriously investigating a protest as they returned to Toronto after the game, so stay tuned.
However, a league spokesman told ESPN.com that during a replay the refs can only review whether a shot beat the buzzer -- not whether a prematurely started clock was at fault. If that's the case, the Raptors may be out of luck, as the refs followed this rule to the letter -- even though it produced a result that everyone in the building knew was wrong.
As far as whodunit goes, three referees and the timer can all start the clock; a source told ESPN.com that the technology allows the league to trace whomever it was. However, normally in last-second situations the trail referee starts the clock, and in this case that was Eric Lewis.
If the result stands, it will be a painful loss for Toronto. The Raps led by 17 late in the third quarter and, before Ford's play, allowed a game-tying 3-pointer by Mike Bibby when the Raptors mistakenly failed to give a foul.
It also continues a long trend of bad memories in Philips Arena for Ford. Last season, the Atlanta scorer's table omitted a basket of his, costing the Raptors two points in what ended as a close loss. And on Dec. 11, he suffered a scary neck injury that sent him to the hospital and kept him sidelined for two months.
As for Atlanta, the win continues its quiet progression up the Eastern ladder.
It was the Hawks' fifth straight victory and ninth in the past 11 games.
Believe it or not, the Hawks are now closer to fifth in the East than they are to ninth, and they have all but cemented the East's final playoff spot. In fact, should the Hawks sweep this weekend's home-and-home with Philadelphia -- admittedly a tough proposition -- the Hawks would be only a game behind the Sixers for seventh place and in possession of the tiebreaker.
Unless, of course, the league office decides to overturn the result in the coming days.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
The Celtics, who only had 24 victories a season ago, notched victory No. 60 by beating the Pacers on Wednesday night. The 36-game improvement from last season ties the Spurs for the biggest turnaround in NBA history (excluding strike seasons).
|Seasons Team||Games Improved||Biggest reason for turnaround|
|1996-97 to 1997-98 Spurs||+36||Tim Duncan joins team|
|2006-07 to 2007-08 Celtics||+36||Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen join team|
|1988-89 to 1989-90 Spurs||+35||David Robinson joins team|
|2003-04 to 2004-05 Suns||+33||Steve Nash rejoins team|
|1978-79 to 1979-80 Celtics||+32||Larry Bird joins team|
-- Andrew Ayres
The playoff races are heating up. Here's a look at the key games coming up on ESPN and ABC:Friday: Spurs-Jazz, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN; Mavs-Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Saturday: Magic-Cavs, 3 p.m ET, ESPN Sunday: Warriors-Hornets, 1 p.m ET, ABC; Mavs-Suns, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
This was a night for returning stars. Lakers center Pau Gasol, Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, Clippers forward Elton Brand and Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas all returned from injury to the court. Three of the four came up winners, with only Agent Zero suffering a loss, by one point. It was Brand's first game of the season. Arenas had not played since Nov. 16.
How Their Comebacks Went
|Dirk Nowitzki||4||23 min., 17 pts, 4 rebs|
|Pau Gasol||9||32 min, 10 pts, 7 assts|
|Gilbert Arenas||67||20 min., 17 pts|
|Elton Brand||74||26 min, 19 pts|
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE via Getty Images
Elton Brand had a successful season debut, scoring 19 points as the Clippers routed the SuperSonics 102-84.
Mark Jackson, ABC broadcaster: Donnie Walsh hired former players (Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas) with no prior coaching experience in Indiana and both times it worked out pretty well (Zeke had a winning record as Indiana's coach). Jackson was a coach on the floor during his playing career, and he's a native New Yorker and former Knick. Tom Thibodeau, Celtics assistant coach: He's helped mold the Celtics' league-best defense as an assistant under Doc Rivers. Plus, he'd be a connection to the Knicks' last successful stint, as he was an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy in New York. He also worked under Van Gundy in Houston, so you know he's defense first. Rick Carlisle, ESPN broadcaster: Carlisle's been successful in both places he's been -- Detroit and Indiana. As Walsh said, the Knicks do have talent, and Carlisle could get them playing closer to their potential. He's a strong candidate for the Bulls job, which also is expected to be vacant.
Michael Curry, Pistons assistant coach: An NBA journeyman throughout his playing career, Curry's long been viewed as a great leader, and this year he's learning under one of the league's top offensive coaches, Flip Saunders.Mike Budenholzer, Spurs assistant coach: Not sure if he'd be interested, but he's worth contacting. He's been an assistant in San Antonio for 12 years, so he's learned under the great Gregg Popovich and helped win four titles. Paul Silas, former NBA coach: He was very successful in Charlotte/New Orleans, and considering Cleveland's youth, he did a good job there, too. • See the full Chris Broussard blog