INDIANAPOLIS – In a tough and impressive home win on Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers made LeBron James look relatively pedestrian while rallying around their center Roy Hibbert long enough to tie the Eastern Conference finals with a 99-92 conquest. Sadly, little of this will make the fish and chip papers on Wednesday morning, as this contest will unfortunately be remembered as a game ruled by the refs.
In a playoff season that has been mostly free of referee-based intrigue, the officiating crew that worked Tuesday night’s Game 4 contest between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers gave NBAniks a season’s worth of drama on one night. There wasn’t a killer missed call that decided the fate of a game-winning shot, no player injured himself badly on a non-call that went awry, and the course of the back and forth wasn’t altered by a fight or series of technical fouls that went out of control.
No, this Joey Crawford-led refereeing crew simply decided that the game was best served with its imprint all over it. Which is why there were a ridiculous 55 personal fouls called in this contest, with the Heat grabbing 30 of those whistles, including a somewhat shocking sixth foul called on LeBron James with a minute left in the fourth quarter.
James’ absence hurt the Heat, there was always the chance that the team could have rallied behind its star to pull out the win as the team was four points down with a minute to play when LBJ was whistled for an offensive foul. James had yet to foul out during the 2012-13 season prior to Game 4, only reaching five fouls twice in the year, including an overtime-addled five whistles during Game 1 of this series. The lack of LeBron in the final minute wasn’t what put the Heat away, though, as the Pacers stayed mindful of their station throughout the gutty win, while answering every Heat run.
It was a great game, but still a joke of a contest, though, because of the endless amount of showy, look-at me whistles from Crawford’s crew. Fellow referees Rodney Mott and Derrick Stafford were complicit, but this was Crawford at his worst – calling plays far out of his jurisdiction, swaying with the crowd or utilizing makeup calls, all while making himself the center of attention throughout.
Which is a shame, because the Pacers earned this win, and would have been able to pull it out even with James sticking with five or fewer fouls.
The team’s defense made a small forward out of LeBron James all over again, influencing the Heat helpers to look away from LeBron in the post and look toward what felt like good looks on the opposite side of their star. As the possessions piled up, though, James (who missed five of six shots while attempting to do work down low) turned from decoy to disregarded, and it wasn’t as if his teammates were doing much to pick up the slack.
Midway through the third quarter, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had combined to miss 17 of 24 shots. The trio recovered somewhat in the fourth quarter (combining to make 5-9 shots), but the Pacers did a masterful job at keeping Bosh out of his comfort zones both on the perimeter and rolling to the hoop, and Wade never did seem to find a rhythm trying to improvise off of what looked like broken plays. Ray Allen, meanwhile, continued to struggle badly against the Pacers – dating back to his last two games against the team as a Boston Celtic, Allen is now shooting 29 percent against Indiana over his last nine contests.
Then there was the rebounding, Indiana’s clear advantage heading into this series and possibly the deciding factor in Game 4.
Indiana won the overall battle 49-30, but raw stats don’t do the advantage justice. Pacer wings like Lance Stephenson (who also contributed 20 points and active defense on James down the stretch), George Hill and Paul George combined to bring in 18 caroms while Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi, and David West (who combined for 30 of their own) contested Heat penetration and closed out on shooters. A team effort in every sense.
Hibbert, badly winded at times while playing fantastic ball on the defensive end, somehow made his way through 40 minutes of all-out All-Star level work against the defending champs, finishing with 23 points on 16 shots (equally adept at working off of broken plays, or while asked to take over in the low post) and 12 rebounds in the win. He didn’t block a shot, but he altered more than his fair share of attempts, while disabusing the Heat of the notion that LeBron James’ low post dominance from Game 3 was going to keep up.
James had a terrific game overall, finishing with 24 points on 18 shots while adding six boards, five assists, and three blocks (including this stellar effort), but it wasn’t the sort of game-changing type of play needed to put a team over the top in the third round.
And those six fouls didn’t help.
Which is a pity, because this was an entertaining game. It’s true that the Pacers and Heat didn’t match the 126 first half points the two teams put up in Game 3 until the 4:29 mark of the third quarter in Game 4, but in a blowout’s absence we were treated to a heady back and forth full of great effort and smart decision making along the way, all mindful of the context in which the teams were working in, and the precision and professionalism the moment demanded.
It’s a shame the refereeing crew could not keep up with the same sense of tact. Even with James missing the game’s final minute, neither team explicitly benefited from the preponderance of calls. The Pacers felt the raw end of the deal for a good chunk of the contest, and the Heat had to watch the league’s best player take a seat during crunch time. Neither deserved either side of that coin.
It was a fight, a battle in basketball terms, and the refs needed to keep the whistles on the ready. They also needed to keep their egos in check, and nailing one out of those two just isn’t going to fly this deep into May.