Was there contact on the play? Sure. Enough to draw a foul? By today's standards.
But should it have been called? Not if the league wants to keep its fans. This foul at a key moment during a key game is really what's wrong with this league.
Officials are told to call the touch fouls, they are told to call technicals to make sure that the players don't get out of hand, and they are told to protect the superstars, though the league would never admit as much.
Hard fouls are now flagrants, perimeter players can't even be touched when dribbling; to put it concisely, the game has become sissified.
The NBA is scared of another Pistons-Pacers brawl. It's scared that fans will see the players as nothing but trash-talking thugs. It's scared that its liked superstars—see LeBron and the Heat's Dwyane Wade—would not produce enough.
In the end, the league is scared that it'll lose fans.
But 26 free throws in the fourth quarter of an elimination game will drive fans away. Managing a game by over-officiating it is sure to lose their interest, and watching coddled millionaires being protected from the slightest contact will definitely do the same.
These Conference Finals have arguably four of the best five players in the NBA, and they certainly feature the two best athletes in James and Howard. But games are being decided not in these players' athletic abilities; they're battles waged at the free-throw line, heavily influenced by judgment calls by officials.
James trips over his own feet with the game on the line and gets bailed out with a call, and Carmelo Anthony runs into the body of Laker forward Luke Walton on three straight plays and gets six straight free throws.
How many free points have been given through technical and flagrant fouls that have been rescinded the next day? How many times has the momentum of a contest swung for one ref's call?
Defensive players slide over to pick up a charge by playing an area on the court instead of the opposing player, some perimeter players get away with shuffling their feet before putting the ball on the floor, while others don’t, and some players get five seconds in the key instead of three.
And just how many touch fouls are going to be called for the premiere players in this league before the NBA finally does something?
These playoffs are making the league look like a sham (for more on that, read “The New NBE: National Basketball Entertainment”).
Just last summer, maligned ex-official Tim Donaghy said that the NBA was guilty of fixing games—he claimed that top league executives would use referees to influence games so that the NBA Finals would have higher ratings. He cited Game Six of the Lakers-Kings Conference Finals in 2002 as an example of a game altered by crooked methods.
NBA Commissioner David Stern responded by telling the public to consider the source of that information—Donaghy has been sentenced to 15 months in prison on charges related to gambling.
But with calls like the phantom blocking call that allowed James to tie Cavs-Magic Game Four, Donaghy’s claims that higher ratings take precedence over fairness are becoming easier to believe.
But it’s not too late for the NBA. There is at least one game left in each of these series, and at least four NBA Finals games, and the officials need to let the players play in these remaining contests.
Kobe Bryant was frustrated at the lack of calls down the stretch in Game Four. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s used to those calls, and Anthony felt the same way because he is too.
But the relatively low amount of free throws—19 total, including five that came in intentional foul situations—made it a better game to watch than last night’s back-and-forth free-throw-laden fourth quarter.
Denver Nuggets coach George Karl’s claim of unfair officiating falls to the wayside once the fourth quarter of Game Five is reviewed. But what if Game Six is called the same way?
Anthony will have much less bravado charging into the lane trying to bully his way to the basket to score or draw a foul, and same for Bryant. Thuggish offensive basketball will be discouraged, and the team with the best ball movement and offensive execution will be the one that wins the game.
The pressure would be off the officials, finally, but I’m not sure that that’s what the NBA really wants.