The world's hatred for LeBron James and the Miami Heat has led many fans to blame the refs for all of their big wins. I'm obviously guilty of this, and while sometimes it's wrong, lately, it seems like the Heat are getting more and more preferential treatment.
So far in the series, the Heat are shooting 2.5 more free throws per game than the Thunder, not a massive disparity. It seems a bit odd that Miami would have the edge, considering Oklahoma City shot an average of 1.1 more free throws per game during the regular season, but that is understandable.
What seems fishy is where those fouls are being called.
Let's start with Kevin Durant. By now, you've all seen the infamous non-call on LeBron on Durant's game tying attempt. The general consensus is that it was a foul. If you need video evidence, check out this video. Nobody has posted a very clear angle on the foul, but you can see contact if you pause it at around the 26-27-second mark.
Then there are the fouls being called on Durant. He isn't a particularly physical defender, and he's very disciplined on offense, so it makes sense that during the regular season he only average 2 personal fouls per game.
In the finals, that number has shot up to 3.75. He spent good portions of Games 2 and 3 on the bench in foul trouble. This doesn't make any sense. While he has spent some time guarding LeBron, Durant has guarded physical players before and his numbers don't change so dramatically.
This isn't a trend either. He averaged 2.08 fouls per game in the three preceding rounds of the playoffs. He has never averaged more than 2.09 fouls per game over the course of a season and had reached five fouls only twice in his last 23 games before having it happen in back-to-back finals games.
You can't even argue that defending LeBron James is causing these extra fouls. In nine head to head match ups before these finals, Durant actually only averaged 1.8 fouls per game, less than his career average of 1.89.
In other words, there is no statistical reason that Kevin Durant is getting called for so many fouls. It's a complete statistical anomaly.
Russell Westbrook is getting similarly odd treatment on the other end. So far in the series, he is averaging 5.25 free throw attempts per game, less than his season average of 6.3.
That in itself is not a massive disparity, but consider his total shot attempts. In the regular season, he averaged 19.2 field goal attempts per game, but in the finals that number has jumped to 25.
His total shot attempts have jumped by almost 25 percent, but his free throw attempts have dropped by nearly 17 percent. Doesn't that seem odd?
Let's examine Westbrook's excellent Game 4 performance. Despite taking 32 shots from the field, Westbrook only shot a grand total of three free throws. Westbrook wasn't just shooting jumpers; according to his shot chart, 15 of his 32 attempts were within 10 feet of the basket. He was driving to the hoop at a pretty normal rate.
The only similar performance that I can think of to judge this against—in terms of shot attempts—is Dwyane Wade in the 2006 Finals. Wade took no less than 19 shots in each game, yet despite never topping Westbrook's 32, he never shot less than 10 free throws in any single game. In Game 5, he took 28 field goals and 25 free throws.
For the series, Wade averaged 23.6 field goal attempts per game and 16.2 free throw attempts per game. Neither are close to Westbrook's 32 and three. Considering the similarity between the two players, it seems odd that Wade wouldn't have one game in that series similar to Westbrook's Game 4.
One argument people have made as to why the Thunder aren't drawing as many fouls is that the Heat are a very disciplined defensive team. That is just not true. They were seventeenth in the league this season in personal fouls. That means they're essentially middle of the pack.
There are some smaller oddities in the officiating we need to look at as well. Both LeBron and Wade are averaging at least a full free throw per game more in the finals than they did in the regular season (LeBron is up from 8.1 to 9.75; Wade is up from 6.1 to 7.75). If Wade is injured, as many fans claim, then his free throw attempts should be down, as he would be driving less.
This is the case for Shane Battier, who is up from .6 attempts per game to 1.75. The only Heat regular to see a significant drop in their free throw attempts is Chris Bosh, but that can be explained by his overall drop in shot attempts due to recovery from injury.
The Thunder are not blameless for being behind in this series. They've blown three winnable games by turning the ball over and making bad decisions.
However, stats don't lie. Whether you think the league is actually trying to affect the outcome of the series or you simply believe the refs are doing a horrible job is up to you, but what the numbers show is that this series has not been officiated equally. The Heat have taken advantage of that fact, and considering how close these games have been, it may have changed the outcome of the series.
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