AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The reaction to this one from many in the NBA’s 29 other precincts might be along the lines of puh-leeeze: LeBron James suggested Sunday that he doesn’t get his share of whistles when on the receiving end of physical play.
The bruised and bloodied bodies of fallen opponents strewn behind him might argue to the contrary.
But then, when the NBA has an opportunity to review video of some of the hits the Cleveland star takes – like a high elbow from Detroit center Andre Drummond in Game 3 Friday of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference series – and issues no retroactive flagrant or technical fouls or fines, maybe James has a case.
James wasn’t complaining at the Cavaliers’ shootaround session Sunday in advance of their closeout opportunity in Game 4 at The Palace of Auburn Hills. But he wasn’t hiding his belief, either, that all physical contact isn’t adjudicated fairly.
Asked about the Drummond blow and the absence of any rebuke, James told reporters: “Initially I was surprised. But then I thought who he did it to and I wasn’t surprised.”
Given the size, speed and power of James’ game, at a muscular 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, the sense among NBA observers long has been that he dishes out punishment without even trying, just from incidental contact that can hurt. The flip side is that, given his strength, he absorbs a lot of contact without getting knocked off course or sent to the floor, resulting in fewer whistles that way as well.
“He’s the Shaq of guards and forwards,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s so strong and so physical when he goes to the basket guys are bouncing off of him. Those are still fouls. But he doesn’t get that call because he’s so big and so strong and so physical.”
Lue, since taking over at midseason as the Cavs head coach, assiduously avoids criticizing the referees or NBA HQ over calls made or not made. It’s a button many coaches push at playoff time, dating back at least to Phil Jackson‘s tweaks while with the Bulls and the Lakers and probably all the way back to Red Auerbach and John Kundla.
Their goal: Plant a seed for the next game. But it can get expensive – witness Stan Van Gundy‘s $25,000 fine after Game 1 for bemoaning what he felt was the refs’ disinterest in calling offensive fouls on James – and it doesn’t suit Lue’s personality.
“It’s their job to clean it up,” said Lue, who proudly notes that he never got a technical foul in 11 years as an NBA point guard. “It’s not my job to complain about the situation at hand.”
James rarely is shy in complaining in the moment about calls he feels should have gone his way. His lightning-rod game and expressive gripes, added to every NBA player’s default position regarding fouls, generates a lot of hoots and hollers from fans in arenas who think James actually gets preferential treatment from the refs.
Some teammates, such as Cavs center Tristan Thompson, are in the middle of the physical play that ramps up in the playoffs and see it differently.
“He gets beat up the most. He gets beat up the most in the league,” Thompson said. “He takes a lot of hits night in and night out, especially in this series, and he keeps pushing and he stays mature.”
James takes the hits but clearly he doesn’t take them lightly. He had a no-nonsense look Sunday morning, suggesting a resolve to limit the Pistons’ shots at him by limiting their playoff run to the minimum of four games.
“I just like to gather my composure, my guys’ composure, going against the opponents’ fans,” James said this close-out opportunity on the road. “I thrive adversity and hostile environments.”