What is the NBA’s game-protest process and has a team ever been successful?

A look at the box score for the Oklahoma City Thunder game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday shows a tight contest, ultimately won by the Thunder 111-109. And while no team is happy after a loss, the Trail Blazers were more than unhappy.

They felt the loss was unjust due to an official’s decision late in the game, and the Blazers planned to file a protest to the NBA league office, challenging the result of the game, according to a report from ESPN.

With the Blazers leading 109-108, coach Chauncey Billups tried to request a timeout before an official called a double-dribble on guard Malcolm Brogdon with 15.1 seconds remaining.

Billups stepped onto the court to argue the call and was assessed two technical fouls and an automatic ejection. Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made one of two free throws, tying the score at 109, before Jalen Williams hit the game-winning basket with 2.1 seconds to go.

“My guys played too hard for that,” Billups told reporters after the game. “It’s a frustrating play.”

Crew chief Bill Kennedy said postgame that, “the referee in the slot position was refereeing the double-team that was right in front of him, which makes it difficult for, No. 1, to hear and, No. 2, to see a coach request a timeout behind him.”

“He is taught to referee the play until completion,” Kennedy said.

History, however, is not on the Blazers’ side when it comes to a protest. A successful game protest has only happened six times in NBA history. The last time was on Dec. 19, 2007, when the Miami Heat’s protest over the number of fouls assessed to Shaquille O’Neal during their game against the Atlanta Hawks was validated. That marked the only successful protest in the NBA over the last 41 years. Before the Blazers, the Dallas Mavericks filed a protest on March 22, 2023, following their loss to the Golden State Warriors. The protest was unsuccessful.

What does the rulebook say about game protests? What is the process to file one? Why are they so rarely successful? Let’s answer some of these questions.

What is the protocol for an NBA game protest?

Protests do not occur during a game. According to the NBA constitution, for a team to file a protest against the result of a game, notice must be given via fax or email to the commissioner within 48 hours after the game’s conclusion.

How are protests filed?

A game may be protested only by a governor, alternate governor or coach. The member filing the protest must also submit a $10,000 check payable to the league. The $10,000 will be refunded if the protest is successful, but if not, the money is “forfeited” and the league keeps it.

“Upon receipt of a protest, the commissioner shall at once notify the member operating the opposing team in the game protested and require both of said members within five days to file with him such evidence as he may desire bearing upon the issue,” NBA rules say. “The commissioner shall decide the question raised within five days after receipt of such evidence.”

Why are protests rarely successful?

The NBA protest process isn’t designed to remedy a missed call. Those are just tough luck. Instead, it is for misapplications of the rules or rulings. “Not getting a timeout called” wouldn’t seem to qualify. — John Hollinger, senior NBA writer

When was the first NBA game protest filed?

The first NBA protest was filed on Feb. 26, 1952. The Indianapolis Olympians lost to the Philadelphia Warriors 88-86. The Olympians protested the result with their reason being referee incompetence. The protest was denied.

The last successful NBA protest

In that 2007 game between Miami and Atlanta referenced above, the scorer’s table incorrectly fouled out O’Neal with only five fouls. That was an egregious misapplication of the rules, and Miami’s protest was upheld.

The final 51.9 seconds of overtime of that Miami-Atlanta game was replayed on March 8, 2008, before another regularly scheduled Heat-Hawks game. By then, the Heat had traded O’Neal to Phoenix, so he wasn’t part of the replay.

The Hawks led 114-111 at the point the replayed game resumed. Neither team scored for the 51.9 seconds left in OT, giving Atlanta the win. After a 15-minute break, the Hawks beat the Heat 97-94 in their regularly scheduled game. — Hollinger 

What’s it like to be on the losing end of an NBA protest

I also was involved in an unsuccessful protest when I worked in the Memphis Grizzlies front office; Sacramento protested that a Nov. 13, 2014, buzzer-beater by Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee came after the buzzer and should not have counted, and that Kings center Ryan Hollins tipped Vince Carter’s inbound pass, which should have started the clock earlier.

With no last two-minute reports — a league-provided breakdown of fouls in the last two minutes of the game — to provide next-day judgments at that time, the NBA ruled the shot was on time and that it wasn’t a misapplication of the rules. The Grizzlies won 111-110. — Hollinger

History of NBA game protests

If the Blazers protest, it would mark the 45th time in NBA history a team has protested a game result. Only 13.3 percent of those have been successful, requiring part of the game to be replayed. Of those, the outcome flipped in favor of the team that protested just twice.

The first was on Nov. 28, 1952, when the Philadelphia Warriors originally lost 78-77 in overtime to the Milwaukee Hawks. The Warriors protested that the Hawks substituted a fifth player illegally after they only had four eligible substitutions left due to disqualifications. The protest was successful, and the teams replayed the game’s final minutes on March 11, 1953. The Warriors won 72-69.

The second game was on Nov. 30, 1982. The San Antonio Spurs originally lost 137-132 to the Los Angeles Lakers in double overtime. With the Spurs up 116-113, they fouled Lakers guard Norm Nixon with four seconds remaining in regulation. Nixon made the first free throw, cutting the deficit to two. But Nixon faked his second free throw — the ball never left his hand — forcing players from both teams to move into the lane, trying to secure the rebound.

The officials ruled it a jump ball. The Lakers got the ball and tied the score at 116 before winning in double overtime.

Instead of the jump ball, the Spurs wanted officials to grant Nixon another free-throw attempt. Because Nixon never shot the free throw, there should have been no double-lane violation, resulting in the jump ball.

The Spurs’ protest was successful, forcing the teams to replay the final three seconds of regulation on April 3, 1983. San Antonio held on to win 117-114.

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(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)

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