A tempest in a teapot

There were so many compelling story lines in Chicago’s victory over the Heat the other night. There was Miami’s 27-game winning  streak. Thrilling dunks on both sides. Amazing steals. Ferocious rebounds. Spectacular plays.

It was gripping basketball. About as gripping as it gets in the regular season.

But oddly enough, the lingering discussion regarding this game is all about LeBron James’ assertion that he was victimized by hard fouls.

Said LeBron: “Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say]. I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive … those are not basketball plays.

“It’s been happening all year, and I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo, ‘Let’s not worry about it too much.’ But it is getting to me a little bit because every time I try to defend myself, I got to face the consequences of a flagrant for me or a technical foul, whatever the case may be. It’s tough. It’s tough. It’s very tough, and I’m not sitting here crying about anything because I play the game at a high level. I play with a lot of aggression, and I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not, but sometimes you just got to … I don’t know. It’s frustrating.”

Kirk Hinrich’s response to his so-called tackle on Lebron was brief and to the point: “I was just hanging on for dear life and didn’t want to give up the and-one.”

For his part, Taj Gibson was somewhat taken aback by LeBron’s comments: “I think he’s too good of a player to do that. You just play, two teams really going out there and play hard, going to the basket extremely hard and physical. I didn’t try to collar him. I just fouled him. It wasn’t intentionally.

“I just tried to make a play on the ball, but I fouled him. When he fell, it looked like I collared him. I was really trying to grab him, just not hold him up. Nobody was intentionally trying to hurt anybody out there. When he said those comments, I was really shocked. But it’s part of the game, I guess.

“Carlos [Boozer] was getting hit the same way all night. We have to guard them and do our jobs. Me and Kirk, what he said about us, it was crazy. Kirk wrapped him up, first off. He was trying to make a play on the ball. He wrapped him up to not try to hurt him intentionally, so he won’t get an easy layup. He’s a dominant player. You just try to slow him down. We’re not trying to intentionally hurt him.”

Things didn’t stop there. They kept going. And took a turn for the weird.

Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made the following comments on WEEI Radio: “I think the referees got the calls right. I don’t think it was a hard foul. I think the one involving LeBron against Carlos Boozer [in which LeBron lowered his shoulder into the Bulls’ forward 10 seconds after Gibson’s foul), that was flagrant. I think the officials got it right. I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating.”

This elicited a rather profane reply from Miami Heat president Pat Riley: “Danny Ainge needs to shut the f— up and manage his own team. He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him.”

Naturally, Ainge had a quick response to this: “I stand by what I said. That’s all. I don’t care about Pat Riley. He can say whatever he wants. … Pat Riley’s right. I should manage my own team. I complained a lot to the officials. And I’m right, LeBron should be embarrassed about how he complains about the calls he gets.”

Talk about drama.

Meanwhile on TrueHoop, Henry Abbott published an article called Tackle Basketball for the win in which he wrote:

Before the game, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau predicted a “cage match.”

Physicality, in other words, would be Chicago’s solution to Miami’s big, strong and super-quick LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who tend to make layup after layup. Good, solid defense doesn’t cut it against those two. The recipe? When they get a step on their defenders, when layups and dunks look likely … tackle them, hit them, bring them down out of the sky. 

It started a few minutes into the game, when an eager Kirk Hinrich, despite having perfect defensive position, crashed into an open-court James rather than attempt to strip the ball, draw the charge or contest at the rim. Minutes later, Hinrich was directly in James’ path, in position to draw a charge or try to poke the ball away. His move? A bear hug that ended with his own head whacking the floor hard. 

Moments later, James was zeroing in on a reverse layup or dunk, and the Bulls’ Taj Gibson — in no position to touch the ball — swung hard and connected with his hand directly to James’ head. Instead of dunking, James ended up on the floor, checking his teeth. And that was just the first quarter. 

Why, again, is this fun to watch?

This post was followed by one about the origin of the “no layup” rule of the late 1980s and 1990s and how it is still allowed and rewarded in today’s game. After all, the Bulls used it to end Miami’s historic winning streak, didn’t they? Tackle basketball for the win, right?

I don’t know about all that.

For starters, I’m curious where all this outrage was when Dwayne Wade pulled Rajon Rondo to the ground and dislocated his elbow in the playoffs a couple years back. Or when he intentionally kicked Kevin Garnett during a layup attemptOr when he broke Kobe Bryant’s nose at the All-Star GameOr when he threw Rip Hamilton out of bounds. Or took another cheap shot at KG. Or tried to run through Paul Pierce. Or perpetrated a dangerous take down from behind on Maurice Evans during the playoffsOr viciously and intentionally drilled Darren Collison from behind during another playoff gameOr kicked Ramon Sessions between the legs.

Why, again, is all that fun to watch?

But I digress. Let’s stick to this particular game.

According to Hoopdata, the Heat went 23-for-32 at the rim in their game against the Bulls. That’s a conversion rate of 71.9 percent.

So much for a no layup rule.

LeBron — whom we are being told was the hapless victim of something akin to Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball — went 8-for-9 at the rim.

Dwayne Wade — who, according to Abbott’s post, “was sent sprawling to the floor spectacularly and regularly” by the Bulls — went 4-for-5 at the hoop.

Chris Bosh was 5-for-7 from point blank range.

For those of you who enjoy simple math, Miami’s big three were 17-for-21 on layups and dunks during a game in which they were apparently being tackled, hit and brought down out of the sky any time they attempted an attack on the basket.

Something doesn’t quite add up here.

If the Bulls were employing Tackle Basketball, how could Miami’s three primary offensive weapons end up with 17 conversions out of 21 attempts at the rim in a game with playoff-like intensity against one of the best defensive teams in the league? That makes the kind of sense that doesn’t.

Were there hard fouls?

No question about it. And the Bulls were penalized judiciously by the officiating crew. LeBron attempted a game-high 11 free throws. Wade came in second with seven foul shots. Bosh was tied with Jimmy Butler for third with five freebies.

What’s really strange about all this is that the most obviously intentional foul of the game — when LeBron rammed his shoulder into Boozer and then swung his elbow near Boozer’s face – did not even warrant a mention in any of the articles about the dangers of intentional fouls.

Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk provided some much needed perspective:

LeBron can be frustrated if he wants — the referees certainly let the game get more physical than most regular season games. And to my eye, if Gibson’s foul didn’t cross the line into flagrant neither did LeBron’s shoulder.

But he can’t have it both ways — he is often a “bully scorer” who simply overpowers opponents on his drives in the lane. LeBron can score a lot of ways but he isn’t afraid to use his physicality to his advantage. But that means he can’t then turn around and say “hey, they are being too physical with me.”

Compared to the 1980s this was not that physical, but the league has moved away from that model… at least until the playoffs start. Wednesday’s game in Chicago had the physicality of a playoff game, something LeBron should get used to.

LeBron initiated the contact with Hinrich, he tried to bully past him, Hinrich just wrapped him up. That was a basketball play to me. Gibson was on the bubble of flagrant, but LeBron lives in that zone.

Personally, I don’t believe there is a dangerous epidemic of intentional fouling going on in the NBA. Nor do I think the Bulls were channeling their inner Bill Laimbeer in that exciting win over the Heat. They committed a handful of hard fouls and were justly penalized for them. End of story. Anything else is just much ado about nothing.

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