MIAMI -- I present the following not as a conspiracy theory, but as a fact:
A judgment call by an official late in Game 2 of the NBA Finals went in favor of LeBron James, and that judgment call allowed the Heat to escape with a victory against the Thunder. Three days later, on Sunday night, a judgment call by an official again went in favor of LeBron James -- and that call allowed the Heat to hit the clinching free throw and escape Game 3 with a 91-85 victory.
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Again, that's not me launching a conspiracy theory. That's me telling you the way that it is, and the way it is has the Heat holding a 2-1 lead on the Thunder -- with both wins sealed by a referee's decision of a 50-50 call in favor of LeBron James.
Well, hold on -- I'm trying to deal with facts here, not theories, so let me clear up one fact in that last sentence:
Those were not 50-50 calls that went in favor of LeBron James. That would be generous to the officials, and I'm not in a generous mood to say either call looked as close as a 50-50 proposition. Not Thursday in Game 2, and not Sunday in Game 3, when a bizarre call -- dare I say phantom call -- 45 feet from the basket sent James to the foul line with 16.2 seconds left and the Heat holding a three-point lead. James hit the second of two free throws to make it a four-point game, a two-possession game, and it was essentially over.
Reggie Miller wasn't walking through that door, and the Thunder would have no miracle finish. Not on a night when they were more Keystone Kop than NBA finalist, their sloppy game capped by Thabo Sefolosha's inbounds pass to nobody with 15 seconds left that finished the Thunder for good.
Although that phantom call pretty much finished them first.
If you saw the call late in Game 3, you know what I'm talking about. Unless you're a Heat fan, and then never mind. For everyone else, you saw Thunder guard James Harden harassing James on the perimeter, pressuring the ball loose and then staying uncomfortably close as James regained control. As Harden hovered nearby, James lurched into him once, then twice. The second time, Harden went to the floor.
Flop? Probably, yeah. But when the official blew his whistle, it wasn't a 50-50 call because there were three options, two of them favoring the Thunder: One, no call at all. Two, a charge on James. Three, blocking on Harden. The referee went with No. 3, and the game was basically over. The three-time MVP was given two free throws with 16.2 seconds left, needing to hit just one to put the game essentially out of reach. James hit one.
Also déjà vu -- because James received a similarly generous whistle in the previous game. You saw that call, too, so you know exactly what I'm talking about. Unless you're a Heat fan, in which case you'll want to ignore LeBron's left forearm on Durant's upper body as Durant goes up for a 10-footer with 11 seconds left and the Thunder needing two points to tie the game.
No whistle. The shot missed, James rebounded and was fouled, and he went to the line with the chance to make it a two-possession game in the final seconds. That was Game 2. But it was also Game 3.
And this is not a conspiracy theory, because if it were, I'd note that Kevin Durant received a lousy whistle in Game 3. (See for yourself. Here were the first four fouls.) The first foul, ironically enough, came when Durant had the ball in his hands and gave to Dwyane Wade the same sort of shoulder that LeBron gave to Harden in the final seconds. The results? Offensive foul on Durant. Defensive foul on Harden.
Durant spent several minutes on the bench with foul trouble, including the game-changing span late in the third quarter when the Thunder surrendered a 10-point lead shortly after Durant was sent to the bench with his fourth foul against Wade -- on a play where it sure looked like Durant didn't touch Wade. As he stood near the Thunder bench, Durant muttered to himself these words:
"I didn't touch him."
After the game, Durant was more charitable.
"I try not to concern myself with the officiating," he said. "They're going to make their calls, and there's nothing we can do about it. We can't change it. Just got to play through it. There's going to be some calls they may miss. They're human."
Well said, and so true, and also skirting the issue that officials have helped decide each of the last two games of the NBA Finals, both in favor of the Miami Heat, by giving the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps a little bit more than that -- to the most famous basketball player in the world. It would be naïve to say officials aren't influenced by the level of fame in front of them, which is why Daequan Cook can flop all game and get nothing, while Dwyane Wade comes apart like Mr. Potato Head and gets rewarded with a trip to the line.
It's a rigged game, but usually it's a fair game. The referees are so bad, so affected by the star power in front of them, that the calls usually even out. Both teams tend to have stars, so both teams tend to get atrocious calls on their behalf. Kobe Bryant probably owes 1,000 of his 29,484 career points -- roughly 12 percent of his made free throws -- to generous calls, the kind of calls you get when you're Kobe Bryant, but not when you're Thabo Sefolosha. This is the way of the NBA: Officials are incompetent, but they're so incompetent that neither team gets an edge.
That's not much for comfort, but that's as much as I can offer. Only I can't offer it today, not to the Thunder, because they have almost as much star power as the Heat, yet they're not getting the calls at the end of the game. The Heat got those calls. The Heat got those games.
The Heat might just be two games away from winning a championship, and if this trend continues, we'll remember these as the NBA Finals that were decided by an official's call. And not one. Not two. Not ...