It happens every spring when the playoffs begin, the perfunctory referee-baiting schemes arriving with the cherry blossoms.
It is as dependable as the team that wins a playoff game saying "we came out more aggressive" and the team that loses saying "we need to be more aggressive" in the following game. It's just a part of the little dance that surrounds most series. The officiating angle is always fertile because it riles up fan bases and appeals to Americans' natural desire for conspiracy and the off-putting of blame and/or reality.
Stan Van Gundy wasted no time, complaining about the officiating during Game 1 when the Detroit Pistons battled but lost on the road to the Cleveland Cavaliers. For it, he was hit with a $25,000 fine by the NBA. It's not the first time he has been fined and probably won't be the last.
Van Gundy, however, has his reasons. And they're well founded.
No team has beaten James more in the playoffs in the last five years than the Indiana Pacers, and an essential part of their game plans in those series were to draw offensive fouls against James. James fouled out -- yes, it happened -- of one Eastern Conference finals game against Indiana and was limited by fouls in several others.
And it always involved offensive fouls that set him up. Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill frequently looked to trap, bait or just plain flop against James. The success rate was never huge, but it was in their bag of tricks and it bore fruit occasionally.
It seems Van Gundy was watching and taking notes.
The Pistons used switching techniques when James was in pick-and-rolls in Sunday's Game 1, and James frequently was able to get matched up against smaller defenders like Reggie Jackson and it was clear those players had been instructed to try to draw offensive fouls on James.
James got away with several in the first quarter, which led to Van Gundy's mini-rant to Lisa Salters in his interview. It also planted the seeds for Jackson, frustrated with officiating, to pick up an unwise technical later in the game.
Having the conversation extend beyond that moment in the game probably favors the Pistons in this regard. The fine -- and Van Gundy earns $7 million a year; it's a write-off -- generated more focus. Now there's stories like this one.
Everyone knows this is now an issue with this series, including the officials. James knows it too, which is why he attempted to downplay the conversation.
"I'm always conscious of [offensive fouls]," James said Tuesday. "It's a bang-bang play most of the time and I think the referees do a great job of getting it right the majority of the time. Sometimes they don't get it right, but we turn the ball over as players. I think the referees did a great job in Game 1 and they'll continue to do that in the future."
When James gets offensive fouls he historically will become more timid, especially in driving to the basket and operating out of the post. Keeping James away from driving and out of wanting to operate in the post has been the centralized mission of NBA defenses for James' entire career. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has essentially designed his defenses to do this at all costs over the course of three Finals. It has worked plenty of times, though the foul-averse Spurs don't try for offensive fouls as they want to eliminate driving lanes.
So while all this days-off filling talk about offensive fouls is just that, there's an underlying issue at heart here. The Pistons' margin for error in this series against the heavily-favored Cavs is thin, and they need to mine for any edge they can find. If they can steal a possession or two by baiting James and even get him to back off a slim percentage because of it, then all these semantics are worth it.
Not that James is thinking too much about it.
"Stan has gotten the better of me in a playoff series before," James said, referring to the 2009 conference finals his Cavs lost against the Magic. "I'm 31 years old man, I don't get caught up in no shenanigans."