CLEVELAND – LeBron James stalked off the court with his head in his hands and his shoulders slumped.
The Cleveland Cavaliers just pulled off perhaps their most impressive win of the season, a 104-100 come-from-behind victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that came into the game winners of 10 of its last 12 games. James was brilliant to boot, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. You see, with less than a second remaining and the Cavs ahead by three, James went to the line to shoot two free throws. He made the first, missed the second and he finished the game 7-for-8 from the foul line, rather than the perfect 6-for-6 he had going until that final second.
“I missed my only free throw of the game and that hurt,” James explained. “It really hurt, really hurt, really hurt. If you know me, free-throw shooting is something I want to clean up and I’ve been doing that over the last four weeks. No pressure at all, I go up there and we’re up four and I just [miss it]. It was awful; that was awful.”
In James’ last nine games, he is shooting 61-for-70 from the foul line (87.1 percent). It’s been a marked improvement from his first 10 games of the season, when he shot just 49-for-81 (60.5 percent), well below his career 74.4-percent rate.
While James has turned things around when he shoots from the line ever since bottoming out with a 6-for-12 night in a double-overtime loss in Milwaukee on Nov. 14, his free-throw frustration has shifted in recent weeks. He’s no longer fuming over misses – that askew final attempt against the Thunder aside – as he’s found his stride in his stroke.
The irritation both James and the Cavaliers’ coaching staff is experiencing on a night-to-night basis, a team source told ESPN.com, is a perceived lack of free-throw opportunities for the 13-year veteran as referees have swallowed their whistles and allowed contact to become the norm when the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James drives to the hoop.
James is averaging 7.5 free-throw attempts per game this season, tied for fifth in the league with DeAndre Jordan and Andrew Wiggins. He's trailing only James Harden (10.9), DeMarcus Cousins (10.0), DeMar DeRozan (8.3) and Russell Westbrook (7.6) in receiving the most calls in his favor.
There is no question James gets to the line a lot based on his aggressive, attacking style of play, leaving the defense with no other option but to hack him to try to thwart a sure dunk or shot taken right at the rim. Cleveland’s concern, according to sources, is whether James is officiated differently than other players because of his considerable size advantage against the majority of opponents he faces and because of his relentless approach. They believe refs let some contact slide because of the sheer amount of it that occurs.
This isn’t the first time a team has felt the need to lobby for calls for its star, of course. Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, famously declared after Game 3 of the 2001 Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers that Shaquille O’Neal was fouled on just about every play of the series.
"His size and his abilities, footwork and his ability to move a defender are perhaps the most effective that we've ever seen in this game, which really tilts the scale," Jackson said. "As a consequence, Shaquille has to be played, or the balance is not quite fair for Shaquille. Last night, the motto of that game was: 'OK, we're gonna let you guys play. We're not letting you play, Shaq; we'll let everybody else play.'”
One argument in James’ favor is the fact that 268 of his 464 field-goal attempts this season (57.8 percent) have come nine feet from the hoop and in, and most of the contact against James that the Cavs believe is going ignored is occurring inside the paint. Meanwhile, compared to the other wing players getting more calls than James, only 36.9 percent of Harden’s attempts, 44.7 of DeRozan’s attempts, 45.1 percent of Westbrook’s attempts and 48.6 percent of Wiggins’ attempts come in that range, according to NBA.com.
A counter argument could be made that those players might be better at using jab steps, pump fakes and rip-through moves to get more calls on jump-shot attempts than James does, of course, but there is no denying that James lives in the paint more than they do, yet lives at the line less.
James has done his part to fix his free-throw stroke. The Cavs are hoping the referees do their part to fix the way they officiate James.