Arms waving, voice straining, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was halfway down Toyota Center’s sideline late in Wednesday night’s fourth quarter, demanding a word from the officiating crew.
As his father grew irate, and the volume rose inside the arena, Houston guard Austin Rivers began making his own case to referee Tony Brothers.
“Get him,” he said, making the hand signal for a technical foul.
Doc Rivers never did get his explanation why the two timeouts that officials said were his only three minutes earlier were now down to zero. What he received instead were two technical fouls and an ejection, and as he was led off the court his son began a celebration, playing to the crowd.
Ninety-one seconds later, the Clippers followed Rivers into the locker room after a 102-93 loss to Houston that was filled with missed shots, missed opportunities and, in the eyes of the Clippers and even Brothers, at least one officiating error.
“The refs screwed up,” Doc Rivers said.
Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 26 points, with 12 rebounds and seven assists in the loss during 40 minutes 56 seconds of playing time — nearly six more than his previous season high and the limit the Clippers have sought to keep him under as he continues to work back to full health. Rockets star James Harden, who entered the game averaging 37 points, countered with 47 points, including 16 free throws — two more than the entire Clippers roster attempted.
But the flash point of the matchup wasn’t two of the league’s superstars facing each other or even the defense of Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, who specializes in irritation, defending Harden and longtime foe Russell Westbrook.
It was much more innocuous than that: an out-of-bounds call on Clippers forward JaMychal Green with 4:35 to play in the fourth quarter and the Clippers trailing by one point. Rivers challenged the call, believing Harden had touched it last. In fact Harden had, Rivers said officials told him, but because he hadn’t requested the challenge in time, it was voided. Instead, he was told he would receive back the timeout used to make the challenge. At that point, he understood he had two timeouts remaining.
Almost exactly three minutes later, with the Clippers trailing 92-88, Harden drilled a three-pointer, his seventh of the night, from 27 feet and Rivers called a timeout, setting off a chain of events that would send the Clippers to their flight to New Orleans, where they play Thursday in what is likely the debut of Paul George, in a mood somewhere between irate and irritated.
Beverley, who had fouled out two possessions earlier on a call at halfcourt that he questioned, was whistled for a technical foul.
“I got a technical foul because I looked at the ref I guess too long,” he said. “And I guess you can’t look at people in this league now.
“I don’t feel like that’s fair. As a unit we work too hard, coaches work too hard, players work too hard, staff work too hard to prepare for each game to let a game come down to referees and free throws.”
As Rivers left the timeout, his team now down eight after a free throw stemming from Beverley’s technical, he was told the timeout he’d taken was his last. Rivers was under the impression he had one remaining, based on what he’d been told earlier in the fourth quarter. Brothers, the officiating crew’s chief, acknowledged afterward that “after it was determined the Clippers could not challenge the play they were incorrectly informed they would retain their timeout.”
Said Rivers: “The officials can’t tell me that I get my timeout back and then have me use it and then tell me after the fact, ‘You don’t have it.’ That was big. Those mistakes cannot happen. What bugged me the most is the two officials who told me, they ran over, away. They just let Tony Brothers handle it. Like that’s.... I mean c’mon. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
The Clippers (7-4) never recovered from the sequence, which ended with two more technical free throws for Houston and a 10-point lead. But their troubles had begun much earlier.
With owner Steve Ballmer watching from courtside seats, the Clippers began brutally, making one of their first nine field goals while allowing Houston (8-3) to make seven of its first nine to trail 15-3. One of the league’s worst-shooting three-point teams made 30.3% of his shots from deep, with many attempts wide open. Down 36-19 early in the second quarter, Rivers called a timeout because three players weren’t in the right position to start an offensive possession.
“If you don’t want to execute, let’s go home,” he said.
Welp.... thanksgiving is going to be weird....— Austin Rivers (@AustinRivers25) November 14, 2019
These teams meet again in nine days.
“I doubt we’ll go to dinner or anything like that,” Austin Rivers said. “He actually is sensitive to stuff like that, so we’ll see what happens. I love him.”