LeBron Brilliant, But Did Refs Help?
"We need to turn this around. We've got to get LeBron to the line, we need Dwyane Wade to be aggressive ... they're going to have to carry us. If we can get the Indiana big men in foul trouble, that will open up the lane and get this team back in the series."
Question: Who gave this halftime speech? Was it Eric Spoelstra to the Miami Heat? Or league officials to the three referees working Game 4 of the Miami-Indiana series?
Whichever of the two delivered the words or others like them, they expressed an essential truth that brought Miami back to life after its dreadful showing in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at last delivered the performances they envisioned when they decided to join forces two summers ago. The pair scored 38 consecutive points for Miami between the 2:50 mark of the second quarter and 1:30 to go in the third, bringing the Heat from a 46-36 deficit to a 74-66 lead in an eventual 101-93 victory.
In that third quarter, Wade hit all six of his shots, while James went 4-for-7 and was 6-for-8 from the line. Each scored 14 in the quarter and had 22 and 21, respectively, in the second half, taking over the game with a decisiveness the team has too often lacked.
The shared load shouldn't mask the fact that this was LeBron's game, one in which he did all those LeBron things that make him one of the indomitable forces in the sport. He drove, he dunked, he rebounded. He threaded a beautiful look-away bounce pass through three defenders to a wide-open Wade under the basket. He ran down Leandro Barbosa and blocked a breakaway layup with ease, cleanly swatting the ball into the backboard without even a hint of body contact.
James had 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. No one has reached those three levels in a game - regular season or playoff - in the last 25 seasons. He got the assist on four of Wade's eight field goals in their torrid scoring stretch.
No other player can control a game in so many ways. This is what makes him such an enigma, the fact that he can do so much but sometimes seems to shrink from doing so.
Sunday, he took the game by the throat and contributed a memorable performance, one on par with his coming-out party against Detroit in 2007. He and Wade played the kind of attacking game they will need if they're to survive this series and advance to the conference and league finals.
But to return to the paranoid fantasy above: That style was all but forced on Miami by the foul trouble that hampered Indiana's interior defense. David West was called for two offensive fouls in the first five minutes. Roy Hibbert picked up two fouls late in the first half, and both West and Hibbert got two more in the third quarter. With little choice, Indiana went small, leaving the lane free for James and Wade to operate.
The NBA would like us to forget that one of its referees admitted that he deliberately made calls to skew the results of games a decade ago. Tim Donaghy is a scummy crook, but he told the truth about some games that have long seemed fishy. Donaghy confessed his own role. He also said the league assigned referees on the basis of the results it needed or wanted.
This wasn't a new thought. Players and coaches have long believed that officials likely to favor the home team are chosen when needed, to extend a series or turn it a particular way. No game is harder to officiate than basketball. What to call and what not to call - the referees dictate the style of the game, which so often dictates the result. A call - especially a block-charge call - can go either way without anyone being the wiser.
With San Antonio and Oklahoma City prepared to fight it out in the Western Conference, and with the upstart 76ers making life uncomfortable for Boston in the East, the league would surely be happy to see a team with the Heat's national profile stay alive.
Did the NBA manipulate the officiating in the Miami-Indiana game?
I don't believe it did.
But 10 years after Donaghy, it shouldn't be surprised if we wonder just a little bit when the game goes a little too neatly the way a prominent team would want.