Hoodwinked On the Hardcourt (Part 1)

Magicians and swindlers have a lot in common. In every scam, there exists some form of misdirection, a time when you watch the exaggerated motion as the "coin" disappears with virtually no movement. The exceptionally talented scammers make their marks think they are doing them a favor. The marks are so disoriented that they cannot wait to get taken again. And that brings us to the NBA.

Hook, Line and Free Throw

At the end of a typical NBA game, many fans take a look at the box score to confirm or disprove their observations of the game. If your team won, the observation starts with the points column and then proceeds to who shot well. Maybe you do the same for the opposition. It is fun to look for statistical anomalies such as double doubles or out of family performances (a center with 10 assists, a guard with 10 rebounds). Secure in your knowledge of your team's superiority, you can go about your life.

If, however, your team lost, the pilgrimage to the box score takes on an entirely different meaning. If you had an inkling that you got screwed by the referees, your first stop will be the free throw attempts column. Seeing a huge disparity in trips to the charity stripe may piss you off. But let me tell you this; you are probably looking in the wrong place. The table below shows from most to least what a single bad call by a referee can cost your team. Note where an incorrectly called defensive foul lies in the table. This table assumes a simple 1.1 points per possession (PPP) and 75% free throw shooting. Your mileage may vary.

Incorrect Call by Referee

Statistical Cost to Team

Offensive foul called on a shot that went in

Should have been a defensive foul

2.75 points (basket + one FTA) vs.

(loss of possession)

Offensive foul called

Should have been a defensive foul

1.5 (two FTA) vs. (loss of possession)


Should have been a defensive foul

1.5 (two FTA) vs. (loss of possession)

Incorrect travelling

1.1 (loss of possession)

Incorrect carry

1.1 (loss of possession)

Incorrect over and back

1.1 (loss of possession)

Incorrect possession on out of bounds tip

1.1 (loss of possession)

Incorrect offensive three seconds

1.1 (loss of possession)

Missed goaltending

0.9 (basket) vs. (one possession)

Incorrect defensive three seconds

0.75 (one FTA)

Incorrect defensive foul

0.4 (two FTA) vs. (one possession)

A defensive foul resulting in free throws is not a big statistical swinger during the game. A team shooting 75% on free throws has the expectation of 1.5 points from two free throws instead of 1.1 points from a single possession (there is some interdependence I am ignoring). If your team has 10 more or fewer free throws, the expectation is that changed the outcome by +/- two points. In a really tight game, two points can mean a lot. In most games, it is not a factor. On the other hand, missed turnovers that should have been fouls can add up in a hurry.

The 2013 Heat

At the risk of being obvious, let me point out that Basketball is a game. Even when it is played by people who bring in nearly $60 million a year for playing it, it is still a game. Upon retirement, many famous athletes from different sports marveled that they were allowed to make their living by simply playing a game that they loved. Those who respect their sports play within both legal and moral bounds. It is one of the reasons I love the Spurs, but alas, it is not universal.

The 2013 Heat are as talented a team as anyone in the league. But talent is not the sum total of the Heat. The Heat coaching staff seems to have combined knowledge of the table above with human nature to get an edge, effectively lowering the bar for a win. After watching all of their playoffs games, their approach appears to be:

1) If you go for a steal/block/disruption on the defensive end and get caught, the cost vs. most teams is 0.4 points. If you are successful, you gain 1.1 points (actually higher since PPP for turnovers is much greater). If you are successful only one in three times, it is a net positive!

2) When you opponent is ahead, referees are much less likely to call fouls on you. A recent statistical research project that showed no high level referee bias (free throws only), stumbled onto this fact. The phenomenon is real and statistically observable.

3) Referees are very familiar with how teams play. Most do not want to make the game a constant parade to the free throw line. In the same way that Memphis gets away with very physical play in offensive and defensive player body positioning, Miami gets away with physical harassment in an attempt to cause turnovers. The referees simply accept that as "Miami Heat Basketball".

How does this apply to the current NBA finals?

Game 1

Game 1 was the perfect "control" game in a quest to look at the effects of risky defense. It was one of the cleanest playoff games I have ever observed. Neither team led by much and there was a record low number of turnovers (13) and fouls (24). Miami should have won this game. The five Miami turnovers in the fourth game were the difference and as the pictures below show, only the first was a missed call (Ray Allen tripping over Bonner's foot).


Ray Allen trips.


Miller-James missed pass.


James throws it right to Kawhi.


Ball slips out of Chalmers hand.


Shot Clock Violation

What I got from this game was the knowledge that these team were very evenly matched without significant referee input. San Antonio was a little rusty and Miami was a little tired.

Game 2

Game 2 marked the beginning of Miami’s quest to dominate the game through turnovers. I found it very amusing that the announcers commented on how sloppy San Antonio’s ball handling had become suddenly. For the rest of this post, I will take you through the first quarter of game 2. To start, lets look at the two to three kicked balls (hard to tell on one for absolute sure) that were not called. In each case, Miami was trying to break up a pick and roll so kicking the ball is a very viable option to stop the play. It is an even better option if the referees do not call a kicked ball and let you have it as a turnover.


Parker nails Bosh's foot.


Another pass, another foot.


This time it was a shin.

In this last picture, you see Duncan kicking a ball. As it turns out, yes, these referees do know what a kicked ball is.


I guess Duncan's legs are not ethereal.

BTW, by NBA rules, the event below was a backcourt violation. A ball that is being held by a player can go into the backcourt provided neither the ball or any part of the player body touches the back court. Chalmers did not have possession of the ball before going over. In that case, as soon as it breaks the plane, it is over and back.


Over and Back ... or Not

I found it incredibly enlightening that the NBA felt the need to bring in a former referee to validate calls and no calls. Game 1 was such a cleanly played game. Were they expecting controversial calls in game 2? The only problem is, they only went to Javie a couple of times. When the missed foul call was clearly against the Heat, he said "I really can't tell what the referee on the floor saw". When it was clearly on the Spurs, he had no problems with his conviction. In addition, they never ask "Is this a steal?". Even though that is much more important than "Is this a foul?".


Smile for the camera, Steve. So who pays your salary now?

This brings us to the last part of this installment. Here are three examples of Miami's "incredible" defense in the first quarter of Game 2. In the first picture, you can see a steal by Bosh. In this case, the steal is executed by hitting Ginobli's arm as he dribbles. This is a scene that repeats over and over again throughout the playoffs. Next, there is a picture of Kawhi going back up for an offensive put back. This was actually called a block! The final picture is Duncan also trying for an offensive put back. He is simultaneously being hit on the forearm by Chalmers and being pushed with two hands by Bosh.


I guess the elbow is part of the ball.


I guess the shoulder is part of the ball.


I guess the forearm is part of the ball.

In future installments, I will try to add animated GIFs instead of just pictures.

I am hoping that the Spurs win the title. However, my math tells me that games 3 and 5 were a statistical aberration and as long as Miami gets 10-15 more possessions per game due to bad calls, a Spurs win will only come from a Herculean effort.


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