March 29, 2013

Hard fouls taking toll on Miami Heat’s LeBron James

The Heat’s loss to the Bulls on Wednesday raised the recurring issue of hard fouls and cheap shots against LeBron James.

Two streaks of considerable length ended Wednesday in Chicago.

The first, of course, was the Heat’s 27-game winning streak, which ended, coincidentally, on the 27th of March. It was the Heat’s first loss since Feb.1.

The second streak that came to rest at United Center was the lengthier of the two. When LeBron James extended his elbow and shoulder against Carlos Boozer in the fourth quarter, he was whistled for his first flagrant foul since Feb.1, 2007. ESPN staffers were the first to note the rarity of James’ lapse in judgment. It is difficult to rattle James on the court, but it’s no secret he’s not the best of friends with Boozer. Surprisingly, Dwyane Wade was on the receiving end of James’ flagrant foul six years ago.

It wasn’t the most significant reason for the Heat’s first loss in 28 games, but James’ lack of composure was a contributing factor. Also significant were the Heat’s three-point shooting and rebounding numbers. Miami (56-15) was 35.0 percent (7 of 20) from behind the arc was outrebounded 43-31, including 12-6 on the offensive glass.

“Objectively, we can step back and admit that we probably weren’t getting better, these last handful of games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

The Bulls’ aggressive defense made sure the Heat rediscover itself in Chicago. The physical play is something James and the Heat have endured throughout the season, but the hard fouls, borderline cheap shots and unspoken messages will only increase in the playoffs. There isn’t a surefire blueprint to the defeating the Heat, but knocking the big guy on the ground a few times can’t hurt, apparently.

Kirk Hinrich wrapped both arms around James and pulled him to the ground in the first quarter. The play was almost comical except Hinrich smacked the back of his head on the hardwood during play and James fell awkwardly to the ground as well. Taj Gibson clubbed James in the head later the first half. It seemed the only way to stop James on Wednesday in Chicago was with a little violence. For James, that’s an unwanted scouting report as the playoffs approach. The reigning and most likely future MVP will be on the receiving end of a lot more abuse when the postseason begins.

James voiced his displeasure after the game.

“Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say it,” James said. “I believe, and I know, that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground and the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around the shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not basketball plays, and it has been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool and tell Spo let’s not worry about it too much but it is getting to me a little bit.”

After being fouled multiple times at United Center with what he called nonbasketball plays, James boiled over and took his frustration out on Boozer. James checked Boozer during a screen — clearly a nonbasketball play — and was whistled immediately for a flagrant foul before things escalated. Boozer made one of two free throws to give the Bulls a nine-point lead. After the game, James vented about the flagrant foul call.

“Every time I try to defend myself, I got to face the consequences of a flagrant or a technical,” James said. “So, it’s tough. It’s very tough. And I’m not sitting here crying about anything. I play the game at a high level and with a lot of aggression, and I understand that a lot of plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not, but sometimes you just got to ... I don’t know. It’s frustrating.”

Wade said after the loss that he’s surprised James doesn’t receive more technical fouls for retaliation. Wade went as far as to suggest that maybe James should dole out some of his own punishment from time to time.

“A big guy like that, I don’t think they really want to see him start trying to inflict pain on other people,” Wade said. “He plays the right way and he gets reffed like a guy who was in this Miami Heat jersey before, Shaquille O’Neal.

“It’s tough, but that’s why he is who he is. You’ve got to deal with it. It’s unfortunate, but tonight he decided to get back a little bit. I don’t think it was that bad but he got called for it.

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