Realizing his team's predicament, Orlando's Jason Richardson appeared to jump off the bench just in time to jar the basketball loose from Boston's Greg Steimsma, knocking it out of bounds as the Magic regrouped with their full staff of five players on the court.
While many fans believe the officials erred by not issuing a technical foul to Richardson, the officials made the correct call by allowing play to continue and awarding the ball to Boston on the ensuing out-of-bounds violation.
Because Richardson had replaced Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu with 5:23 remaining in the third quarter, Richardson was legally in the game when the four-players-on-the-court incident occurred starting at 5:16. If the officials additionally deemed Richardson on the playing court when the ball first came into play by virtue of it being at the disposal of the thrower-in, the Magic—for all intents and purposes—had five players in the game during the play in question.
Richardson left the playing area, presumably because he incorrectly assumed J.J. Reddick, who was late checking in at the table, had been beckoned into the game as his substitute.
Instead, Reddick remained at the scorer's table and Richardson—the player of record still legally in the ballgame—took a seat on Orlando's bench as play continued in Boston's frontcourt.
When Richardson darted back onto the court mere seconds later, his actions were legal per NBA Rule 3-1-c, which states:
In the event that a player leaves the playing court while the ball is in play, play will continue until the next stoppage of play and the player will be replaced if he is not ready to return. No technical foul will be assessed, but the incident will be reviewed by the league office for a possible fine and/or suspension.
The purpose of this rule is to avoid mandatory penalization against a player who makes the honest mistake of leaving the playing area due to injury or because he incorrectly believes he has been removed from the game, while allowing the league office to review the play to impose punitive actions against players clearly taking advantage of this rule.
Whether or not officials noticed Richardson's return to the floor during live ball activity is irrelevant. If the officials ruled Richardson had incorrectly left the playing area at the start of live ball activity (when the ball was at the disposal of the thrower-in at 5:23), they would be prohibited by rule from calling a violation or technical foul when Richardson returned during the same period of live-ball play.
Had the officials deemed Richardson not legally in the game when the incident occurred, the play would have resulted in an illegal substitution situation, the penalty for which is a technical foul (Rule 12-3-a). Had the officials deemed Richardson out of play and his substitute—Reddick—improperly out of play by virtue of remaining seated at the scorer's table, the penalty imposed would have been a technical foul for not having exactly five players on the court at the start of live-ball activity (Rule 12-3-c).
Unlike high school and college, NBA rules do not classify intentionally leaving the floor as a violation, except if an offensive player leaves the playing area on the end-line in the frontcourt for the purpose of setting a screen.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.