In the wake of his team's 102-90 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George had plenty to say, most of it about the way the game was called by the referees.
Paul George, obviously wanting to contribute to the NBA's general charity fund: "Maybe this was just home cooking."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) May 27, 2014
Paul George on the free-throw discrepancy: "It's just demoralizing when the game is lopsided."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) May 27, 2014
But George also had this to say:
Paul George: "Looking at the stat sheet, we outplayed them. … I thought we outplayed them tonight."— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) May 27, 2014
Taking a look at the stat sheet, it appears at first that George is right, at least on some level. Indiana outshot Miami from the field (49.3 percent to 46.4 percent) and from three (42.9 percent to 33.3 percent), grabbed more offensive (9 to 6) and total rebounds (37 to 34) and dished out more assists (18 to 16) than the Heat did. Despite all that, though, Indiana never led once throughout the evening.
The reason for that, and the reason that George is wrong, is that his team lost big in two crucial areas in which you cannot afford to lose against Miami if you want to come away from the game with a victory: Turnovers and fouls. Indiana turned the ball over 14 times to Miami's five, and fouled the Heat 27 times compared to drawing only 17 fouls of their own. As a result, the Heat scored 20 points off turnovers to Indiana's six, and took 34 free throws to Indiana's 17.
LeBron: "We only had seven turnovers … and 20 points of their turnovers. That has nothing to do with the free-throw line."— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) May 27, 2014
Some of this is not exactly new. Indiana was the league's fifth-most turnover-prone team this season, according to NBA.com, and only the Clippers were better at turning opponent mistakes into points than the Heat.
Going back to last year's conference finals matchup, it can realistically be said that turnovers were the difference between these two teams back then as well. When Miami dials up the defensive pressure, the Pacers often cannot help but turn the ball over. And when they do that, Miami capitalizes with easy baskets more often than not.
George himself was the biggest culprit in Game 4, giving the ball to Miami five times, every one of them under minimal pressure.
This is just a series of sloppy, forced passes into tight coverage.
Lance Stephenson–surprise, surprise–dribbled himself into two turnovers of his own; George Hill dribbled the ball out of bounds; David West threw away an entry pass and got called for an illegal screen; C.J. Watson got himself caught in a trap and then chucked the ball out of bounds. The Pacers were equal-opportunity blunderers. It's safe to say these plays had nothing to do with the refs.
The Pacers are a very physical team. Their defense is predicated on being able to bump, jostle, and generally manhandle their opponent. Their defensive anchor, Roy Hibbert, is snidely known by some opponents as “Mr. Verticality” for his ability to get no-calls around the rim – leaping to contest nearly every shot in his vicinity, often going chest to chest with the shooter. The Pacers’ defense is their identity, and they most definitely benefit from a loosely-called game at that end of the court.
Yet, what they don’t seem to grasp is that to get that loosely called game on their defensive end, they have to live with at least some level of bumping, jostling, and no calls at their offensive end.
Paul George complains — seemingly — after every shot or no call. David West is a very vocal as well. And even Frank Vogel is getting in on the act with increasing frequency and tenacity. This has to wear on officials. We know it does because the technicals are beginning to become more common place. So, at worst, the officials in any given game will get legitimately annoyed by the disrespect. At best, they probably see George and others as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
It's tough to argue with any of that. Despite playing arguably the most physical defense in the league, Indiana sent shooters to the free throw line as a percentage of shot attempts at about an average rate this season, per NBA.com. In the playoffs, when fouls usually tend to increase, that rate has stayed almost exactly static. That holds true for the series against Miami as well.
In this series, the Pacers have shot 94 FTAs to Miami's 87.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) May 27, 2014
Even after Game 4's 34-17 advantage at the free-throw line, Miami has still taken seven fewer shots from the charity stripe overall for the series than Indiana. Without going through and parsing every single call and non-call, the surface-level numbers don't appear to indicate a referee advantage for the Heat.
The perception is probably that the Pacers, due to their post-up heavy offense, take many more shots around the rim than the Heat do, but that hasn't exactly been the case. While Indiana attempted 26 restricted-area shots in Game 4 to Miami's 20, that six-shot margin makes up the entirety of the difference between the two teams for the full series, in which Indiana has taken 93 shots in close, compared to Miami's 87.
And again, the Pacers have gone to the free-throw line more often, despite the fact that post-ups are generally less likely to generate shooting foul calls than drives through the lane, which is how Miami tends to get its at-rim opportunities.
In Game 4, one factor that likely lent itself to Indiana getting called for a series high in fouls was Hibbert's relative lack of playing time. He was on the court for only 22 minutes due to a combination of ineffectiveness and his own four fouls, and his absence led to increased fouling by Indiana's other players.
Other than Lavoy Allen, who has played only 11 minutes, no Pacer has a lower on-court opponents' free-throw rate than Hibbert in the playoffs, and the Pacers have sent opponents to the free-throw line at an astronomical rate whenever Hibbert has sat during the postseason, per NBA.com. The same was true in the regular season—Indiana opponents rarely went to the free-throw line with Hibbert on the court, and they went all the time when he came out of the game.
It should come as no surprise that Miami attacks the basket vociferously whenever Hibbert comes out, that they shoot better at the rim and that they draw more fouls, too.
It certainly did not help that Indiana's perimeter players got in on the action by committing 14 of the Pacers' 27 fouls in Game 4.
Fouls like these that serve as no impediment whatsoever to scoring and send the Heat to the line for free extra points are just silly. Not only do they put Miami on the free-throw line, but it gets them closer to the bonus and has the added detriment of adding a foul to Hill and George's ledger that did nothing to prevent the Heat from putting the ball in the basket. Fouls should be used to prevent scores, not aid them.
Miami's offense is efficient enough as it is without getting help from the Pacers in the form of fouls and—especially—turnovers. The Pacers had the league's stingiest defense this season, but Miami is lighting them up this series to the tune of 111.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark they bested by over 10 points in Game 4, when they generated 50 points from turnovers and free throws alone.
The series is headed back to Indiana for Game 5, where the Pacers have had the free-throw advantage, and at least in Game 1, they were able to keep Miami from scoring too many points off giveaways. In order to make sure there's a Game 6, the Pacers will have to get these issues under control.
Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.