HOUSTON — A Jalen Brunson foul that wasn’t actually a foul cost the New York Knicks the chance at a comeback victory. And after the Houston Rockets’ win, the only people who would admit that the final play of the game should have been called differently were the referees themselves.
In a tie game with seconds remaining, Rockets guard Jalen Green charged to the rim, only for Knicks big man Precious Achiuwa to swat away the attempt at a game-winning shot. The ball torpedoed out to Green’s teammate, Aaron Holiday, who chucked up a prayer.
Longtime referee Jacyn Goble answered it.
The shot did not go in, but Goble called a foul on Brunson for running into the shooter. Holiday made two of three shots to ice the game, and the Knicks fell 105-103.
After the final buzzer, crew chief Ed Malloy admitted in an interview that Brunson made “incidental contact,” and that the play should not have been called a foul. Had the whistle not sounded, the Knicks and Rockets would have gone into overtime tied at 103.
“After seeing it during postgame review, the offensive player was able to return to a normal playing position on the floor,” Malloy said in the interview with a pool reporter. “The contact, which occurred after the release of the ball, therefore is incidental and marginal to the shot attempt and should not have been called.”
The play came only seconds after Brunson, who struggled to make shots all evening, squared up physical Rockets stalwart Dillon Brooks, drove right and stepped back into a midrange, score-tying jumper.
Brunson, who finished the night with 27 points on 10-of-25 shooting, fielded three questions about the foul on Holiday after the game. He answered all three with the same four words:
“Great call,” he said. “Next question.”
Foul called on Jalen Brunson while Rockets shoot a 3 towards end of the 4th QT (Game score: 103-103). pic.twitter.com/pavUPyxMeE
— 3030 (@jose3030) February 13, 2024
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke similarly about the officiating, though he wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic.
Brunson’s foul on Holiday wasn’t the only play of that type Monday night. With seconds to go in the first half, Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo hoisted a deep 3 from nearly the same spot Holiday released from two quarters later. But Holiday, who was the defender in this case, ran into him and was called for a foul. Once officials deemed there was time on the clock when the foul occurred, the Rockets challenged the call.
Houston didn’t just win the challenge, eliminating the foul on Holiday; the refs also changed the call to an offensive foul on DiVincenzo for sticking his leg out on the jumper.
Thibodeau, who had already grown heated throughout the first half because of physical paint play he thought should have led to fouls against Houston, got called for a technical foul in the aftermath, his first tech of the season.
When asked after the game what he thought of the officiating during the loss, he responded, “Great. It was great.”
He said he did not receive an explanation from the officials for the foul call on Brunson to end the fourth quarter and did not offer his own opinion on it.
“If you look at the film, you see it,” Thibodeau said. “It is what it is.”
When a reporter asked Josh Hart, who spoke with media immediately after Brunson, if Hart agreed with his point guard’s assessment of a “great call,” Hart responded with a question of his own.
“I don’t know,” Hart said. “What (do) you think?”
“I didn’t think it was,” the reporter said.
“All right, well — just know I want you to write that,” Hart said.
Though they didn’t dig into the officials publicly, frustration within the Knicks wasn’t just about the final play. After all, Thibodeau was pent up enough to earn his first tech since 2022-23.
The Knicks took 12 free throws, compared to 33 for the Rockets.
“The thing with the officials — this is the way I feel about that in general — is I don’t really care how tight the game is called,” Thibodeau said. “You can call it tight or you can call it loose. I just want consistency to be the same. And they have a job. They have to control and manage the game. That’s their No. 1 responsibility. They have to use their judgment, and I have respect for that. It didn’t go our way tonight.”
The loss comes at a trying time for the Knicks, who are missing four of their most important players, Mitchell Robinson (ankle), Julius Randle (shoulder), OG Anunoby (elbow) and Isaiah Hartenstein (Achilles).
New York may have to add DiVincenzo to the list. The team’s starting shooting guard exited Monday’s game with under six minutes to go because of an apparent hamstring ailment. He started to show signs of the injury earlier in the period when he came up short on a defensive play and grabbed the back of his right leg. Moments later, he spent an entire timeout massaging his hamstring. He went back onto the court anyway.
After a couple of minutes playing with a hobble, he asked out of the game, conversed with a trainer and headed straight to the locker room. At the time he checked out, he had played in 41 out of a possible 43 minutes.
Thibodeau said after the game that the team did not have an update on DiVincenzo’s condition.
The loss is the Knicks’ third in a row and drops them to 33-21 on the season, fourth in the Eastern Conference. They play in Orlando on Wednesday before heading into the All-Star break.
The Knicks are allowed to file a protest to the league within 24 hours of Monday’s game. But to win a protest, a team must prove the misapplication of a rule, not necessarily a missed call, such as what happened on the Brunson foul.
(Photo of Jalen Brunson reacting to a referee’s call at the end of Monday’s game: Troy Taormina / USA Today)