About that free throw disparity

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LeBron James protests a call to Danny Crawford, a subject of debate among NBA fans.

As human beings, we’re hardwired to connect the dots. We don’t survive as a species without the ability to fill in the gaps when there’s insufficient information presented to us.

So naturally, there’s some debate about what caused the foul disparity in Game 3.

As we see in the box score, the Dallas Mavericks were whistled for 14 personal fouls, while the Miami Heat were called for 27. And unfortunately, the postgame conversation has degenerated into something like this:

Conspiracy! Payback for 2006! Danny Crawford is a crook!

Let's slow down. It’s not enough to point to the whistle gap and suggest that foul play was involved. For some reason, fans rush to judgment, contending that there’s zero possibility that the Heat simply fouled the Mavericks twice as much as the Mavericks fouled the Heat. That stuff happens in a physical game like basketball.

But what was interesting, to me at least, wasn’t the foul disparity, but the nature of the calls themselves. At the end of Game 3, it seemed that no rebound was pulled down without being paired with the piercing screech of a whistle.

Was I just imagining this?

Since the box score doesn’t break down types of foul calls, I went back to the tape and double-checked my memory. Here are the facts:

  • There were 27 fouls called against the Heat in Game 3. Of those 27 fouls, 18 of them were non-shooting fouls.

  • Of the final 11 fouls called on the Heat, only one was in the act of shooting (Mario Chalmers fouling Dirk Nowtizki).

  • Seven of the foul calls on the Heat were on live-ball rebounds (over the back, e.g.). Five of those came in the last 13 minutes of the game.

  • There were 14 fouls called against the Mavericks. Of those 14 fouls, eight of them were non-shooting fouls.

  • Of the eight non-shooting fouls, four of them were on live-ball rebounds.

  • All in all, just 15 of the 38 fouls called in Game 3 were in the act of shooting.

There's a notion that referees tend to swallow the whistle in the playoffs, letting the players duke it out (within reason), but that certainly wasn't the case Sunday night. The game was very tightly called, especially under the rim, where a Heat player fouled Tyson Chandler five times in a rebound situation. I can't remember another game when the number of rebounding fouls (11) nearly matched the number of shooting fouls (15).

Did the refs miss some calls? Yes. And guess what? That makes them human.

Did Shawn Marion foul LeBron James on that pump-fake jumper with 1:30 remaining? Maybe -- there was certainly body contact between the two players. Did the refs miss Chalmers' backcourt violation on the buzzer-beating 3-pointer? Dependsonwhomyouask.

Referees will miss some calls. I'm reminded of the referee panel during the MIT Sloan Conference in Boston a few months ago, when NFL official Mike Carey bluntly admitted to fellow panelists Mark Cuban and Bill Simmons that referees are not perfect and they won't see every infraction on the playing field. To some, this may seem like an indictment on the quality of refereeing, but to me, it's nothing more than an honest assessment of human limitations.

The question becomes whether the referees continually whistled the Heat unfairly in Game 3. It's well-documented that Crawford has worked many Dallas playoff losses in his career (the Mavs are now 4-17 in the postseason with him as a referee) but Crawford wasn't the whistle-blower behind many of the most heavily protested calls in the game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Crawford called six fouls on the Heat and eight on the Mavericks. He called an even number of shooting and non-shooting fouls for each team. The free throws led to a net gain of plus-2 for the Heat.

The truth is that there wasn't any consistent and visible partiality in this game. With a height disadvantage, the Heat have to be physical on the live balls and the referees deemed them illegally physical on more occasions.

Simply put, the referee bias was not as one-sided as the foul disparity suggests. Now, whether this is the most enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing way to watch a Finals game is a different story.