LeBron James likely did himself no favors with the refs by fueling the debate over flopping just ahead of Game 4.
Little more than 12 hours after he breezily labeled the practice "not even a bad thing, you're just trying to get the advantage," the Miami Heat star collected his sixth foul and took a seat on the bench with the game on the line and just under a minute left against the Indiana Pacers.
James devoted the rest of his time on the floor, and a few moments in his interview session afterward, to grumbling about the officials' handiwork.
"I didn't believe it was an offensive foul," he said about the last call. "I was going to set a screen, and I felt like I was stationary. ... Lance (Stephenson, the Pacers' guard) actually ran into me."
The call was made after James attempted to set a screen for teammate Dwyane Wayne at the top of the key then stuck out his left leg to make it tougher for Stephenson to get around him. For good measure, he also stepped on Stephenson's foot. While you rarely see an illegal screen called late in a tight game, when Stephenson stumbled to regain his balance the officials were forced to sort out the damage.
Right after the whistle, James put both hands to his head in a gesture that suggested both surprise and disbelief. It was a little late for both. That was his fourth foul in the final 12 minutes, and Indiana's soon-to-be-cemented 99-92 win marked just the second time he's fouled out in a playoff game.
This one cost the Heat mightily.
James actually had a beef with three more of the six fouls he accumulated, and it wasn't without some merit. One came with two seconds left in the third quarter, after he collected a loose ball close to Indiana's basket, then swung both arms to protect it from David West and grazed the Pacers big man with his elbow. The contact in that instance seemed minimal. But when big bodies get bounced around, James knows it's the refs who have to sort it out.
"It was a couple of calls I didn't feel were fouls, personal fouls on me," he said, then tried to temper his complaints. "That's how the game goes sometimes."
Yet that's not the way anyone in the NBA, from commissioner David Stern on down, wants the games to go — ever. Refereeing a sport where the court's barely big enough to accommodate the ever-larger, more-athletic players that crowd it is tough enough. Too much contact requires too many judgment calls, which results in too much controversy, even when everybody is playing honest.
That's why the league came up with its anti-flopping policy this season — the same one James called attention to by suggesting, "It hasn't been a problem for many guys at all."
In fairness, James was simply answering questions about flopping, which seemed to be the topic du jour at both teams' Tuesday morning shootarounds. That's probably because the Heat and Pacers have a history in that regard. Indiana coach Frank Vogel, like his Bulls' counterpart Tom Thibodeau, is one of the best in the league at drawing up defenses and tailoring them to choke off another team's attack. They play rough just about every time they meet, even with considerably less on the line.
Just before they tangled in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, Vogel labeled the Heat the "biggest flopping team in the NBA."
"Flopping is a problem in this league," he continued. "Miami certainly has some guys who do a lot of it. I just don't think it's good for the game in general."
Vogel got slapped with a $15,000 fine from the league, but with the series tied 2-2 heading back to Miami, that's beginning to look like money well spent. This Heat-Pacers series has been bruising at times, and while not nearly as rugged or contentious as the Heat-Bulls matchup in the last round, it's kept the referees on their toes.
Wade leveled a forearm at Stephenson's head in Game 2 that wasn't whistled at the time, because the refs missed it. The league office reviewed the play, though, and subsequently slapped Wade with a flagrant foul. Pacers fans have apparently been following the back-and-forth almost as intently as the players, since they began chanting "Beat the Floppers" not long after the opening tip.
Indiana raced out to an 11-0 lead, but ultimately prevailed because they played smothering defense (Miami shot just 39 percent for the game), controlled the paint on both ends (building a 50-32 edge in points there) and ran up a 49-30 edge in rebounding. The six extra free-throw attempts they picked up along the way (33-27) didn't hurt, either.
"We knew we were going to take their punches," Indiana George Hill. "And we knew we were going to have to throw punches back."
And trade the Heat flop for flop, as well.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.