When it comes to the NBA, sadly, I believe in conspiracy theories. I believe that the commissioner essentially acts like a god, and I believe, too, in divine intervention.
Does this mean the NBA Finals was a fixed series? No. The best team indisputably won. But there was a clear line of demarcation in these Finals between Games 2 and 3, when the series went from entirely uncompetitive to something considerably more entertaining and dramatic. Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers could have won all three of those games and maybe they couldn’t have. But the point is they had a chance — they were this close — and put up a substantially better fight than they did in the first two games.
You want a theory why?
Because the league and officials made it so.
Look, I’m a believer in pace. It’s a hard thing to quantify, even in this day and age. But I believe the team that often wins is the team that most effectively controls the tempo of a game, particularly in sports like football, basketball and hockey. (Baseball has no tempo. And now, when a pitcher does try to speed things up, hitters drag their feet.) If you can play at the speed that most suits your strengths, you are more likely to win.
That’s why, when the NBA Finals started, I was surprised to hear LeBron James say the following between Games 2 and 3:
“That’s not our game. We don’t play slowdown basketball,” James said. “We play at our pace. We play our game. We got to this point playing our way. We have won a lot of games playing the way we play, so we’re not going to change.”
Noble, right? But dumb. Playing the Warriors in an uptempo scoring contest is suicide, and we all know it. Golden State just has too much skill and talent. The Warriors may be the best pure shooting team of all time. Giving them speed and space is like giving a college freshmen a credit card with no real spending limit. They’re going to run it up.
So I did a little math, and here’s what I found: while the scoring in these NBA Finals didn’t seem to go down in the last three games, the pace slowed some. The points come from different places — most notably the free-throw line — and there were more whistles and stoppages in play. Personally, I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think the league watched the Cavs, heard LeBron and came to a simple conclusion.
If the Cavs don’t slow this thing down, they’re going to get run out of the gym. So we’ll slow it down a little for them.
Make of this what you will, but here are the combined stats for The Finals for Games 1 and 2 in field goal attempts, fouls called and free-throw attempts. And remember, what matters here are the totals, not the individual fouls called on each team or free-throw attempts received (though they can obviously be a factor, too). What matters is the speed, pace or tempo at which the game is played. It’s why teams in outdoor sports often do things like grow the grass long or muddy the field to slow down the surface.
Since basketball doesn’t have grass — or ice — the way to control the pace is with whistles.
Total FGA | Fouls called Totals | FTA
Game 1: 182 | 44 | 41
Game 2: 189 | 37 | 43
Averages: 185.5 | 40.5 | 42
Now look at Games 3 through 5:
Total FGA | Fouls called Totals | FTA
Game 3: 173 | 53 | 49
Game 4: 174 | 51 | 67
Game 5: 178 | 46 | 46
Averages: 175 | 55.5 | 50
Of course, the most obvious outlier here is Game 4, which happens to be the only game the Cavaliers won. But the overall point is that the officials starting calling the games more tightly in Game 3, a game Cleveland could have (and should have won) were it not for a complete whiff in the final minutes. While Kyrie Irving was missing a three and LeBron was dishing to Kyle Korver, the Warriors scored the last 11 points of the game.
But unlike Games 1 and 2, at least it was close.
Game 4? A rout for Cleveland that included a whopping 67 trips to the free-throw line. Maybe the Cavs were indeed more physical, as both sides seemed to suggest after the game. But the refs also played their role by continuing to blow the whistles.
Last night, lest anyone forget, was a five-point game heading into the fourth quarter, when the officials called only nine fouls. (Golden State won the quarter, 31-27.) That total was the second-lowest of the game after the second quarter, when officials called just eight fouls. Know what the score was during those 12 minutes? Golden State 38, Cleveland 23.
By contrast last night, when there were more whistles, the Cavs excelled. In the first quarter (when there were 16 fouls), the score was Cavs 37, Warriors 33. In the third, when there were 13 fouls, the score was Cavs 33, Warriors 27. Is this a simplistic way of looking at things? Of course. But it also speaks to the relatively subtle ways officiating can affect the flow of the game, which in turn affects the outcome.
And anybody with a half a brain knows it.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.