NBA fans saw the rarest of rare sights in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals: a LeBron James foul-out. James was as shocked as we were.
With 56 seconds to go and Miami down four with the ball, James was whistled for an illegal screen—his sixth and final personal foul. Perhaps James stuck out his left leg and hip an extra few inches on the play, perhaps he stepped on Lance Stephenson’s foot. Perhaps he did not. Regardless, the call was dubious given the fact that much more obvious illegal screens so commonly go uncalled (see Kevin Garnett, 20 times per game).
How rare an event is a James foul-out? Going into last night, James had played 273 regular season and playoff games for the Heat and had fouled out in only ONE of them (Game 4 of last year’s Conference Finals versus Boston). In 62 out of 76 regular season games this year, he failed to pick up more than two fouls. Only three players in the entire league average less fouls per 48 minutes—and one of them is Jamal Crawford, a player immune to attempting to play defense.
James is an assertive, often aggressive, defender both on the perimeter and around the basket; witness his inclusion on the All-NBA Defensive team. And among coaches, the old adage is that if you’re not picking up fouls, you’re not playing any defense. Yet James joked that whilst studying Heat box scores, “I don’t have to look at my fouls, because it’s usually a zero.”
Indeed, earlier this season, LeBron went SIX FULL GAMES in a row without being called for a single foul. Experienced basketball players and observers know this is impossible to do unless you receive favorable officiating. Of course, basketball observers have long recognized that James receives favorable officiating. Remember when James travelled TWICE on one game-winning play against the Wizards?
Speaking of travelling, last night’s game became even more unusual when James’s teammate Dwyane Wade was called for too many steps just thirty seconds later.
Replays again failed to confirm whether this was definitively the right call. Seeing two questionable key late whistles go against them in such a pivotal moment, Heat fans were flabbergasted, confused, and left blaming the officials for the series being tied at 2-2 heading into Game 5. The irony here is heavy, for a team that is accustomed to getting calls like THIS and THIS and THIS.
In the past, even NBA company man Mike Breen has felt compelled to mention Wade’s unpunished pivot dragging tendencies.
Collectors of rare game footage should save Game 4 in their archives. LeBron fouling out AND Wade being called for a travel seconds later is indeed the NBA equivalent of Hell freezing over. That said, even last night the Pacers were hurt as much as they were helped by blown calls in key moments. A false 24-second violation that cost Indiana two points and sparked a 7-0 fourth quarter Miami run was the most egregious, but a bogus loose ball foul on Paul George and a botched out-of-bounds replay review were also offensive. We should therefore stop short of suggesting the refs decided the outcome one way or the other here.
Put simply, Indiana has outplayed Miami in three out of four games, and but for a bungled defensive possession to close Game 1, would now be up 3-1 and looking to close out the supposedly invincible Heat in South Beach. The most intriguing matchup of the 2013 postseason likely has a few more shifts in momentum to come yet.