You can call me a homer. You can call me biased. But the end of the Eastern Conference finals game on Sunday was nothing short of a travesty.
I didn’t see the entire game, so I can’t comment on how the referees were throughout, but five players between the two teams finished with five or more fouls, and the leader of each team — Paul Pierce and LeBron James — fouled out on calls that can only be dubbed questionable.
In general, refs shouldn’t change the way they call a game based on players, teams, or situations. They shouldn’t swallow their whistles on the last play of a game, they shouldn’t favor one player over another, and they shouldn’t keep a player from fouling out if he actually deserves to. But the problem in Sunday’s game is that both Pierce and James fouled out on calls that were less than deserved.
Pierce was moving through the lane, not really looking where he was going, and ran into Shane Battier, knocking him to the ground. Battier didn’t flop, he just didn’t see Pierce coming. At some points in a game, maybe that foul can be called (maybe in the first quarter of the first game of the year). But it is in situations like this one that refs need to break that general rule, know that the team leader for the Celtics has five fouls, and know that a no-call in that situation is the most fair decision. Instead, Pierce was whistled for the foul and had to leave the game at the beginning of overtime.
The loss of Pierce for the Celtics hurts them. When Ray Allen said, “It was like chess. They took our queen. We took their queen,” he was partially right — Paul Pierce is the leader of the Celtics, the heart of the team who makes things tick for their offense and defense. But the fouls called on James, and the impact removing him from the game caused, was far worse.
James’s last three foul calls were all somewhat suspect. James, who hadn’t fouled out of a game in a Heat uniform, and hadn’t
fouled out of any game since 2008, was whistled for a charge call a little more than half way through the fourth quarter. It was a call that could have gone either way, and Pierce had been called for a similarly questionable charge just moments prior. By itself, that call was nothing egregious.
His fifth foul was by far the worst of the three. James was fronting Kevin Garnett in the post while Garnett repeatedly threw his knee and forearm into James’s back. That’s just good basketball — two guys battling in the post. But then Garnett reached around and shoved James backwards, causing him to fall over. The ref blew the whistle … and called a double foul. A double foul? Rarely have I seen that call, and certainly not in a situation where it was that obviously as to who initiated the contact.
While the fifth foul call was the most mind-blowing, the sixth goes back to my point. James was backing down Mickael Pietrus in the post, they both lost their balance, and both players fell to the ground. Again, in some situations I could see this as a foul call, but overtime of Game Five of the Eastern Conference finals is not that situation.
The real travesty of Game Five was not that a player who has averaged 1.5 fouls per game for his entire career was called for three infractions in nine minutes of game time. It wasn’t that, even though both players who fouled out were the hearts of their respective teams, one of the players led his squad in points, shooting percentage, rebounds, assists, and steals throughout the season. The real travesty was that the refs took Paul Pierce and LeBron James out of the game in the most important situation of the series.
The Celtics are not the same team without Pierce, and the Heat certainly are not the same team without James. And in the last two minutes of possibly the most important game of the series, neither the Celtics nor the Heat were on the floor, but rather lesser versions of the two teams. And that is a travesty.