CLEVELAND — Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue clearly has his mind on his money, but his players are starting to bubble over as it pertains to how they're being officiated.
With 1:59 remaining in the third quarter of the Cavs' 108-97 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, LeBron James was ejected for the first time in his 15-year career. Lue, when asked if James' early dismissal was warranted, smiled and delivered a succinct "Yup!" When asked if he knew what James said, the Cavs head coach denied any knowledge, but would only concur that NBA official Kane Fitzgerald made the right call.
"What do you want me to do?" Lue asked rhetorically. "Go against the refs? No, he got thrown out. He's out."
Tuesday night marked the 1,082nd regular-season game of James' career. Driving to the basket with his team up 23 points, James drew contact from Miami's James Johnson at midcourt before attempting an eight-foot floating jump shot and drawing additional contact from the Heat forward. As Miami center Hassan Whiteside corralled the rebound, James immediately began barking at Fitzgerald and was assessed a technical foul before being ejected.
While his head coach was a bit more affable when discussing the situation, James was less so, discussing the moment with a hat pulled down to his eyes.
"I got fouled, I showed my frustration to the ref, and he sent me to the locker room," James said. "On that particular play, I got fouled all the way up the court, from the time that I stripped [the ball] all the way to the rim. I said what I had to say and I moved on, but [Fitzgerald] decided I should get two of 'em."
Fitzgerald is currently among the least favorable home team officials in the NBA for the 2017-18 season, with home teams winning just 33 percent of the games he officiates, but his foul total a season ago was more favorable for those playing host. When asked specifically what he said, all James would affirm was that it was nothing he had not said to an official in the past. Following the game, Fitzgerald told a pool reporter (via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin) that while there were no prior infractions before that specific sequence, the ejection was a result of a series of events.
"It was a culmination of a couple different acts," Fitzgerald said. "Immediately after the no-call, he turned and threw an air punch directly at me, and then he aggressively charged at me, and then he used vulgarity in my ear a couple times."
Over the course of the last several games, the Cavaliers have fallen victim to a bit of a free-throw disparity that has raised some eyebrows across the locker room as they attempt to combat larger frontcourts with smaller, more versatile weapons.
On Monday night in Philadelphia, 76ers center Joel Embiid drew several questionable fouls on Cleveland center Kevin Love. Last Friday, the Charlotte Hornets earned 27 free throws compared to the Cavaliers' 15. Veteran center Dwight Howard got to the line nine times, several of which could have gone either way as Love frequently found himself seated, twirling his right index finger to signal a potential review of a charge that would be called a blocking foul.
Following a game earlier in the season, Cavaliers guard Derrick Rose expressed frustration with not getting foul calls, only to have the NBA later change the play on which he injured his ankle against the Milwaukee Bucks to a flagrant foul.
On Tuesday, despite being forced to the locker room after just 28 minutes of play, James finished with 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, six assists and five steals. Of his 16 shots, only three were beyond the arc, yet he earned just one free throw, occurring on the team's first possession of the game. As James was ejected, Love was on Cleveland's bench and immediately flashed a face of disbelief.
"I know he probably said something to warrant a tech, and you're not supposed to run up a ref like that," Love said, seated with his knees wrapped in ice after taking on yet another larger, physical opponent. "But when you look at the play, he got fouled. I just didn't think that was something that would get you tossed. He means so much to our team, and he's been so great in the fourth quarter that I thought that was just a tough, tough call."
While the Cavaliers are currently fifth in the league in personal fouls drawn, a closer look at the numbers shows that may not do the team justice.
Love, playing as the team's starting center throughout much of this season, leads the team in free-throw attempts with 5.8 per game. James, however, is among the league leaders in points in the paint. He's currently fourth in the NBA in field-goal attempts within 10 feet from the rim, yet he is 21st in the NBA in getting to the line. He does so with less frequency than jump-shooting players like Charlotte's Kemba Walker and Washington's Bradley Beal.
As Kyle Welch of Waiting for Next Year noted during the 2015-16 season, James often receives markedly fewer free-throw attempts than other players who dominate the basketball and play the majority of their game in the paint. Midway through the 2016-17 season, Welch showed where James would be if he were officiated the same as other physical players.
Entering Tuesday's game, James' 5.6 free-throw attempts per game were a career low, while his 19.3 field-goal attempts per game were the most he has put up since 2009-10.
"I think I'm one of the league leaders in points in the paint," James said in reference to how the whistles have (or haven't) been blown. "I drive just as much as anybody. At this point, it's almost like they're trying to turn me into a jump-shooter."
James' teammate, Dwyane Wade, shared that he was once ejected during his Heat days in a game against the Cavaliers. To Wade's credit, he admitted that he was trying to get kicked out, saying he was lobbing every vulgarity in the book. As it relates to James, however, Wade was a bit more sympathetic.
"I just thought it was quick," Wade said, carefully choosing his words. "A player like him, you give him the benefit of the doubt. He says what he says, you give him a tech, and walk away. I've seen him get that mad, I've just never seen him get ejected. One ejection in 15 years, though, that's pretty good."
While James may be steaming, Love may be confused and Wade may be more impressed than anything, Lue looked to find the silver lining in the whole saga.
"Get him out!" Lue said as he was leaving his postgame address, signaling with his thumb like an umpire, happy that his team won its ninth consecutive game in decisive fashion. "It'll keep his minutes down."