Nothing foul about refs' performance

Everyone agrees that during this year's NBA playoffs, the refs are out of control. They're getting too whistle-happy, and their calls are ruining the games.

Sunday night's Game 3 between Cleveland and Orlando had 86 free-throw attempts, and it came on the heels of a L.A.-Denver Game 3 that featured 76. Both became flowless affairs that took the wind out of the home crowd and bored home viewers to tears, not to mention dragged on for an eternity thanks to the countless clock stoppages for foul shots.

Those two games were the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of people, because there already was a lot of evidence that the zebras were going crazy calling fouls during the playoffs.

I mean, it's so obvious that there should be all kinds of data to support this point.

Um …


And here's where it gets tricky. Because the more you try to prove that these playoffs have been some kind of crazy bastardization of basketball in which every play is determined by overzealous refs hell-bent on playing sheriff, the more you come to the conclusion that maybe everybody's overreacting.

So, free throws are up in the playoffs?


What a shock!

This phenomenon has gone on since prehistoric times as clubs enforce the no-layups policy with greater zeal, and garbage-time situations become fewer and farther between. These playoffs' free-throw rates have increased over the regular-season rates similar to past seasons' rates, even though high-foul teams are overrepresented this time around.

Speaking of which: The Nuggets and Magic are taking a lot of foul shots?


Will wonders never cease?

Denver led the NBA in free-throw attempts per field goal attempt this season by a wide margin. The Nuggets' entire game is predicated on attacking the basket and getting guys to the free-throw line. Denver averaged .382 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt this season in a league where the average was .306. In other words, the Nuggets get about 20 percent more free-throw attempts than the average team.

"That's part of our personality," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "We want 30 free throws a game. That's our mentality. Every game we get 30 layups or more or 30 free throws or more, we have a high percentage of winning."

Orlando averaged .351, good for third in the league, with center Dwight Howard leading the league in free-throw attempts. This stat sometimes surprises people because the Magic are best known for shooting so many 3s, and often those two categories are mutually exclusive. They're a rare team for which that isn't the case.

The Nuggets, incidentally, are nearly as capable of producing fouls on defense as they are on offense. Denver had the sixth-highest rate of opponents' free-throw attempts per field goal attempt during the regular season, so all those times they've put Kobe on the line haven't been accidents. The Nuggets are an aggressive team by nature – essentially, the new Utah, but playing at a faster pace. Sometimes, that mentality gets them in trouble.

Kenyon Martin has had two of the worst fouls in the Lakers-Nuggets series with personals at the ends of Games 1 and 3 that sent Bryant to the line. Both times, the Nuggets had Kobe trapped fairly effectively, once at the foul line and once deep in the backcourt. But each time, they slapped impatiently instead of waiting for the play to finish.

"We're giving them too many free throws off our fouling," Karl said. "Our toughness is turning into fouling toughness rather than being smart."

So the Nuggets, thanks to their playing style and periodic brain cramps, have made the Western Conference finals a high-foul series even though the Lakers weren't a high-foul team during the regular season. In three games, we've seen .435 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt, a huge figure even when allowing for Denver's tendencies.

Before Sunday, the Eastern Conference finals were notable because of the absence of fouls. During the first two games, the teams combined for an average of only .253 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt. Every team but San Antonio had a higher rate during the regular season. And remember that in the playoffs, the rate usually goes up. Even after you punch in Sunday night's goofy foulfest, it's still .361 -- a bit high, yes, but hardly eye-popping for a three-game sample.

Sum it up, and that's six conference finals games with an above-average number of fouls, but we also have a far greater sampling of 67 games from the first two rounds of the playoffs. And in those two rounds, we had no deviation from the historic trend whatsoever. The only noteworthy development is a phenomenal increase in the frequency of technical fouls, with 1½ being called a game in this postseason, compared to less than one per night just here years ago.

But as far as live-ball action goes, the evidence for the "refs gone wild" theory is skimpy at best. Basically, we're getting all bent out of shape over a six-game sample when a sample of 10 times as many games shows the opposite conclusion.

That won't stop everybody from grousing about it in the meantime, of course. We'll complain about zebras' being cowed by the league into blowing whistles on every play and hark back to the glory days when the Bulls and Knicks would beat each other up while the refs stood by and let the grown men settle it. (Those seasons actually had higher rates of free-throw attempts per field goal attempt than 2008-09, but we wouldn't want facts to get in the way of a good story.)

And, in truth, a few specific terrible calls during these past couple of games mistakenly awarded free throws. Dwight Howard's sixth foul on a hospital-clean block of a LeBron James 3 late in Game 3 was the most egregious.

But that's a different issue. If you want to tell me that the quality of officiating has declined during the past decade, you won't get a strong protest from this corner. But if you want to claim that the refs are on an unprecedented mission to foul up the game by calling every ticky-tack reach-in and handcheck, you'll need to bring a lot more to the table than one or two unsightly games on the nights everyone happened to watch.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.