MIAMI — The Miami Heat are mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it….
Well, actually, they are.
They are going to keep taking it to the basket.
That was the message out of the team’s practice Friday, after the NBA upgraded Josh McRoberts' Game 2 common personal foul against James to a Flagrant 2 and levied a $20,000 fine against McRoberts—but stopped short of suspending the Bobcats forward for Game 3 in Charlotte. If McRoberts had been issued that level of flagrant foul at the time of the play, he would have been ejected, but officials are not authorized to review a foul once they initially rule it "common."
Erik Spoelstra, speaking for the organization as a whole—with Micky Arison, Nick Arison and Pat Riley attending the team's practice—made it clear that he didn't concur with the league's decision.
"Look, we've been down this road," Spoelstra said. "It feels like we've been down this road four or five times already this year. We just want there to be a better vigilance and awareness of those plays. LeBron is an attack player. He should not be penalized for his aggressiveness, the size and speed of his drives at the rim. We're all fortunate. ... That play could have been much worse. Could have been much worse. And it's not the first time it's happened."
Not even close.
Miami has made the case for four years that opponents make "non-basketball plays" against James when the four-time MVP is on the run or in the air.
Two years ago, before Game 6 of a chippy second-round series against Indiana, Spoelstra asserted that "the league does not have a problem with hard fouls on our two main guys. In nine games now there's been over a dozen hard fouls to the face, some of the tomahawk variety, some have drawn blood. They don't have a problem with it, so we don't have a problem with it. ...We'll focus on what we can control..."
Last March, after the Bulls snapped the Heat's 27-game winning streak, James complained about Kirk Hinrich taking him to the floor with two hands, and Taj Gibson grabbing him around the neck, saying (subscription required), "those are not basketball plays and it's been happening all year." James' frustration about those encounters had already shown on the court, when he steamrolled Carlos Boozer and got called for a Flagrant 1. That uncharacteristic loss of composure caused Ray Allen to remind James of his role as a leader on the team and how he needed to set a level-headed example, no matter how unfairly he felt he'd been treated. James' comments also set off another controversy, as Celtics GM Danny Ainge called out James for complaining, and Riley responded by telling Ainge to "shut the (bleep) up" and manage his own team.
This March, James again believed he was wronged by officials' interpretations, as Ian Mahinmi's yankdown of him was ruled a common foul, and his own mid-air elbow to Roy Hibbert was ruled a Flagrant 1.
Chris Bosh spoke of how "our guys are getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there ... I guess maybe we need to really decipher what flagrant means because I don’t feel like they were going for the ball in plenty of situations. If you can come down and clothesline somebody, it’s open season and people are gonna get hurt."
So, this is a sore subject in South Florida, and several Heat players have privately expressed their preference for Spoelstra to take more of a public stand.
Friday, Spoelstra issued a warning, though it was more about balling than brawling.
"He is going to attack," Spoelstra said. "It's not going to stop how he plays, how we play. There are going to be collisions at the rim. And if it means opponents have to take him out because a normal defensive play won't prevent him from getting to the rim, or prevent him from getting a three-point play, that you have to be excessive with it, then that should be penalized excessively. Because that's what it is: It's an excessive play."
Spoelstra said the team has repeatedly raised these issues with the league but come away largely unsatisfied.
"We're acknowledging that it's not an easy play to make," Spoelstra said. "We're not going into this game looking for retribution. There's not going to be a retaliation. But there are going to be more attacks.... You're either in position or you're not in position. And you're either making a basketball play or you're not making a basketball play. And let's find out what those are. And let's have a clear, concise, rational understanding from every side what those plays are."
James initially resisted engaging reporters on this subject Friday, but eventually relented. He declined to call McRoberts' play "dirty."
"I take a lot of hard fouls, I understand that," James said. "Guys try to stop me from getting three-point plays. But we all know what the difference is between a basketball foul and a non-basketball foul."
James said he is frustrated when he watches other games, as he did Thursday, and sees flagrant fouls called.
"My foul didn't even get checked," James said. "And it was a crucial point in the game, with 50 seconds left."
Again, however, the officials couldn't check it, once they ruled it a common foul.
James took a few seconds to catch his breath, but didn't go back at McRoberts.
"Obviously, the game is different," James said. "If it was the 80s, then I'd come up swinging, but it's not the 80s. I mean too much to my team, and I can't do that. Me being out of the game, it hurts us more than it hurts the other team. I've got to keep my composure."
He has become convinced that retaliation will backfire.
"We can't," James said. "Every time we hit back, we get suspended or we get fined. We've tried that tactic, and it doesn't (work) for us."
Dexter Pittman, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem have been suspended during the past two Heat postseasons.
"I don't want to get too involved in it, because I already know it's going to be a headline tomorrow: 'LeBron is crying for fouls,'" James said. "And that's not me. I don't want that. I don't want that at all. We're here to win a Game 3. I'm going to be aggressive, continue to do what I need to do to help my team win. It's not about me wanting fouls, or me wanting to be pampered. I don't really care about that, man."
And how would he guard himself at the rim?
"I don't know," James said. "There's only one of me."
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.