There are a number of intriguing subplots from the second round playoff series between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat: Lebron James alternating between spectacular team leader and spectacular choke artist, the issue of whether Indiana's team-based style of play will be able to match Miami's barrage of superstar-led firepower and the question of what exactly Juwan Howard is doing on an NBA roster being just a few.
Not to beat a dead horse because lord knows this horse has gotten his share of wallops, but there is at least one more dynamic that needs to be looked at in this matchup -- the refereeing.
During Sunday's game, which the Heat won by a score of 101-93, Miami stars Lebron James and Dwayne Wade combined for 70 points. Time and time again, James or Wade would show little fear of the Indiana's interior defense, penetrating the lane for easy close-range shots or dishes to open teammates. The biggest reason for this was that Indiana's best defensive player, and debatably second-best player overall, Roy Hibbert was on the bench with foul trouble.
In fact, Indiana's top two players, Hiibbert and Danny Granger, were saddled with seven fouls between them during Sunday's contest. Although that number itself may not seem too egregious, it is a little curious when you consider the number of fouls that Miami's top two players, James and Wade, were charged with. Two.
With 85 minutes of court-time between them, James and Wade only collected one foul each, a statistic that would seem ridiculous was it not so commonplace. Consider this: In the four playoff games that they have played against the Pacers this year, James and Wade have combined to average 3.25 fouls called against them, a number that is actually higher than the 2.5 fouls calls against they averaged in four regular season games against Indiana. (Wade missed one of the regular season games.)
On the flip side of that, Granger and Hibbert have combined to average 7.5 fouls called against them in their four playoff games against the Heat, a number that is up one foul a game from the 6.5 combined fouls they averaged in the regular season against Miami. To put it in perspective, Hibbert and Granger are getting called for two more fouls a game than they were being whistled for during the Pacers first round series against the Orlando Magic during which the duo combined for an average of 5.4 fouls per game.
The way the fouls are being called is emblematic of the way that star players in the NBA are rewarded as much for their big names as they are for their big games during the postseason, a problem that puts star-deprived Indiana at a severe disadvantage. Granger and Hibbert collect fouls and have to go to the bench whereas their counterparts on Miami are allowed to run rampant with little fear of getting whistled for anything. This imbalance affects not only playing time and the flow of the game, but also the amount off free throws attempted.
During the first four games of the series, James and Wade have combined to average 18.5 free throw attempts per game as compared to just 6.5 attempts per game for Hibbert and Granger. This imbalance was perfectly represented during Sunday's game when James and Wade combined to shoot 22 free throws, only two fewer than the Pacers attempted as a team. If Chris Bosh had been playing the number of free throws shot by "The Big Three," would have undoubtedly eclipsed the Pacers' attempts.
Watching the games, it isn't always apparent how much the referees' foul calls affect the outcome, but going through the numbers in this manner reveals a lot. NBA fans are just so used to seeing poor calls and lopsided officiating that it has become just as much a part of the game as the three-point shot or the jump ball, a reality that should make Indiana fans sick to their stomachs.
If the Pacers want to win the series, they are going to have to find a way to get Lebron James and Dwayne Wade off the court (and off the line) and keep Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger on it. If the series continues to be called in the same way that the first four games were officiated, that is going to be a difficult task indeed.