LeBron James may be a victim.
His highness is not accustomed to being swindled by the NBA's referees. He's used to receiving preferential treatment, the superstar treatment. Refs seem to let him play because of who he is.
Against the Indiana Pacers, it hasn't been that simple. LeBron's reputation hasn't kept him out of foul trouble.
After committing three fouls twice during his first nine playoff games, LeBron has been hit with at least three fouls in three of his last four games. He fouled out of Game 4 for just the second time ever in the playoffs and the fifth time for his career overall.
Being whistled for fouls like some common rotation player hasn't suited LeBron. Why? Because again, he's not used to it. And the foreign sound of supposedly unjust shrills has left him to point fingers.
"I don't believe it was an offensive foul," James said of his sixth foul—a moving screen—in Game 4 (via Ken Berger of CBS Sports). "I was going to set a screen and I felt like I was stationary. And D-Wade rejected the pick-and-roll. Lance actually ran into me."
Every word uttered was deliberate. Careful to avoid any comments that could result in sanctions handed down from David Stern and the NBA, LeBron bit his tongue when pressed about the issue.
Reporters keep asking LeBron about Lance Stevenson and Bron keeps biting his tongue.— Rollin Herold (@BR_Rollin) May 29, 2013
It's no surprise he was frustrated, though. He's rarely on the wrong side of a whistle. And when he is, he never incurs the wrath of the zebras in such a concentrated time frame, like four personal fouls in 11 minutes.
For his career, LeBron is averaging just 1.9 personal fouls in over 39 minutes per game. Only three other players in NBA history logged more than 39 minutes a night through the first 10 years of their career while committing fewer than two fouls—Latrell Sprewell, Michael Finley and Wilt Chamberlain.
Not much has changed come playoff time. He's being called for just 2.4 fouls in 43.9 minutes per postseason bout on his career. He joins Allen Iverson as the only other player in league history to be whistled for under 2.5 fouls per playoff game despite receiving more than 43 minutes of burn.
During these 2013 playoffs, LeBron is picking up just 2.2 fouls a night. In the series against the Pacers, that number has climbed to 3.5. It would be even higher had he not gone all of Game 3 without being called for a foul.
With the number of fouls LeBron has committed versus the Pacers seemingly inflated, conspiracy theories have begun to pick up steam.
Has LeBron not been getting the treatment he deserves? Is he actually being targeted by the refs? Has The King become The Victim?
In short, no.
LeBron isn't the scapegoat for the refs' misplaced rage, nor is he being unfairly sought out by them. This wouldn't even be as controversial an issue had he not fouled out in Game 4. Those three other fourth-quarter fouls would have been discussed, but not to this extent. The same would go for his five fouls in Game 1.
Since LeBron was forced to exit Game 4 with a little under a minute remaining, it's a problem. But it shouldn't be.
When we go to the tape, LeBron's screen of Lance Stephenson is clearly illegal. He stuck his foot out, which you just can't do. That's an offensive foul, and we can't expect the refs not to call it just because he had five or because Dwyane Wade changed directions.
Of course, the superstar argument comes into play here. With the game on the line, you'd expect the refs to give a star like LeBron the benefit of the doubt, especially so late in the game.
But perhaps LeBron isn't being afforded such a privilege because the referees don't trust him. As Berger noted, this is the same LeBron who previously endorsed flopping:
But these are the same officials who've spent six weeks in this postseason trying to avoid getting duped by all manner of fake and exaggerated contact -- especially in this series, and especially in this game. You're expecting them to look the other way on an illegal screen because no advantage was gained? That's a lot to ask.
It's especially a lot to ask when coming from the league's best player, the transcendent basketball force of our time, when only 30 hours earlier he had said that flopping was "not even a bad thing," and added, "Any way you can get the advantage over an opponent to help your team win, then so be it."
What comes around goes around, is the way I look at it.
LeBron shouldn't expect to be treated like a star if he's going to admit flopping is a necessity. Refs won't take too kindly to being purposely bamboozled. They're upbraided for every call they make as it is. They can't put their faith in someone who may or may not be trying to make them look like a fool.
That doesn't mean I buy into Berger's theory of what goes around comes around, because I don't.
Game 4 was easily the worst officiated game of the playoffs. Not because LeBron fouled out, but because of other things, like poignantly vexing time management.
I don't know that I've agreed with a whistle in the last six calls.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 29, 2013
Here's the thing, though: LeBron didn't foul out in Game 4 because of poor officiating, nor has he been picking up more fouls against the Pacers than usual because he's being singled out. Sometimes, these things just happen.
Through the first 10 years of his career, Michael Jordan fouled out in three postseason games and nine overall. Kobe Bryant also fouled out three times in the playoffs through the first decade of his career, and 17 times overall.
Are we supposed to believe they were targeted every time they fouled out as well? Of course not.
And we're not supposed to believe the refs conspired against LeBron in Game 4, nor are we justified in even thinking they're stripping him of his superstar status for the entire series.
When LeBron went straight up to contest Paul George's shot midway through the fourth, the refs didn't have to call him for the foul. When he reached in on Roy Hibbert in the fourth as well, there didn't need to be a whistle. And late in the game, they could have looked the other way on his moving screen. Those calls could have gone either way.
Is LeBron James being unjustly targeted by the refs in the Eastern Conference Finals?
But they didn't. They went against him, which means absolutely nothing. That's just how they were called. Just as that's how they weren't called in Game 3, when LeBron wasn't called for anything.
"It was a couple of calls that I didn't feel like were fouls, personal fouls on me," James said (via Berger). "That's how the game goes sometimes."
Future Hall of Famer or not, James is absolutely correct.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise attributed.