Second Look at Game 1: Were refs unfair?

April, 17, 2011
4/17/11
10:22
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Bosh and LeBron
Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
One of the rare occasions where the 76ers attacked the rim, but the Heat often played it straight up, avoiding the whistle.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins always provides an entertaining interview, but following Saturday's loss against the Heat, he was particularly charming talking about the refereeing.

One of the lasting images of Game 1 was Collins theatrically stomping on the sidelines and protesting the referees every call (or non-call for that matter). And the frustration carried over into the post-game press conference.

The talking point after the game was the free throw disparity. Miami shot 39 free throws while Philly shot just 15. A reporter asked Collins to explain the disparity, but the coach wisely avoided explicit complaints in order to avoid a fine from the NBA office.

“My grandkids will lose their college fund,” Collins said, “so I have to dance around it.”

Case closed -- the Heat obviously received preferential treatment from the refs. How else could they have shot 24 more free throws than the their opponent?

Alas, merely pointing to the free throw totals is insufficient as evidence of foul play. While Collins was doing his best to skirt around the referee questions, I couldn't help but think of all the jumpers the Sixers shot (and made) in the game.

Was I just imagining it? I went back to the tape to find out.

The Sixers got their points on jumpers and I really had a tough time finding questionable foul calls. Almost every time down the floor, especially in the first half, Philadelphia would work the ball around the perimeter and find the open space to take a jump shot in a pocket of the Heat's defense. Jodie Meeks from downtown.

Elton Brand midrange jumper. Lou Williams from downtown. Brand midrange jumper. Jrue Holiday from downtown. Brand midrange jumper.

That's how it went. Overall, the Sixers took 39 jump shots according to Synergy Sports video tracking. The shots they got off at the rim were mostly either clean Thaddeus Young putbacks or fast break flourishes.

Young had a marvelous game off the bench, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the loss. He was essentially their only inside presence on Saturday, and if you're looking for foul calls, that's a problem. Young is extraordinarily athletic, but it's almost to a fault because he makes a living by slithering his way around other bigs, creating space and avoiding contact. This was no less true in Saturday's game when he snuck around the rim for tip-ins and got off his shots above the defender rather than through the defender -- the latter being Chris Bosh's specialty. The average forward posts a free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) of 28 percent.

What about Young?

Just 21 percent.

Young isn't the only Sixers player who avoids contact. Brand used to go to the foul line with regularity, but he's no longer quick enough to get his defender off his feet and out of position. As a result, Brand often takes a shot -- usually a jumper -- when he sees the first ray of sunlight. The average power forward's free throw rate? 31 percent. Brand? 28 percent.

In the end, the Sixers don't have any bruisers in the paint and, apart from Holiday, they rarely attack off the dribble. Instead of pounding the basket, the Sixers made crisp passes around the perimeter in order to get open jump shots for their guards to do their damage.

Citing the free throw disparity isn't enough. Sure, there were some 50/50 calls here and there. An airballed Andres Nocioni jumper in the second quarter may have been a foul, or it could have just a been an airballed Andres Nocioni jumper. But when we're dealing with human fallibility, that's going to happen every once in a while. And in Saturday's game, it was every once in a while, not every time down the court like Collins' demeanor suggested.

At the end of the day, if Collins wants more whistles, he has to tell his players to attack the rim and draw the contact rather than avoiding it. Given Collins' encyclopedic knowledge of the game, he should know that the Sixers have the worst free throw rate in the league. And the Heat? They're the second-most frequent visitors to the charity stripe in the league, not because they're chummy with their refs. It's because they have three of the most aggressive foul-drawers in the game who aren't afraid of contact.

The 39-to-15 free throw disparity wasn't an indictment on the refs, but a product of two wildly different playing styles.

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