Toronto Raptors fans have stormed social media in big numbers, complaining that their team has had to compete with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the officials so far in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals.
Rabid Raptors supporters were incensed by Cavaliers star LeBron James selling calls with exaggerated flops, and complained about a huge discrepancy in the number of fouls charged to the two teams. Some boo every whistle blown on their newest favourite son, centre Bismack Biyombo, and conspiracy theorists worry the NBA has it in for Canada's only team as it sits in a 2-2 series tie with the East's top seed.
The stats support the angry Toronto mob: There were 73 foul calls against the Raptors through the first three games of the series; only 46 were called on the Cavaliers. Those numbers caused Dwane Casey to go on a rare public rant about the officiating, and it cost him a $25,000 fine. The on-court officials apparently didn't get the message, because Cleveland wasn't called for a foul until three minutes into the second quarter of Game 4, and Toronto wasn't awarded a free throw until midway through the third.
That upset the Toronto faithful, to be sure, especially since their Raptors had the third-most free-throw attempts in the NBA during the regular season.
But things are clearly different in the postseason. And those who think the fix is somehow in for Toronto should consider a few things that might change their view of officiating.
Toronto kept driving into the paint Monday night, and eventually earned 19 free throw attempts to Cleveland's two in the second half. As well, James isn't the only player in the league overselling fouls – almost everyone does it. And Toronto had trouble just getting into the paint in Games 1 and 2, let alone driving to the rim to create contact and draw fouls. Consider that as hearts swell for the hard-working, charismatic Biyombo, fans can forget all rim-protecting comes with its share of fouls.
That said, the refs called Biyombo on two separate plays in Game 4 that many keen observers argued were clean blocks. One was on James right before the half, and it set both the Canadian and American broadcasts alight.
"Where is the foul?" hollered analyst Jack Armstrong on TSN's broadcast. "You can't protect Cleveland forever."
"That's a clean block," shrieked two of the American analysts on ESPN's broadcast, while a third analyst felt there was some body contact and it was a fair call.
The already supercharged Air Canada Centre crowd exploded with chants of "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit" as Biyombo walked to the bench, laughing in astonishment and raising his arms up to the fans as they turned to shower him with even louder cheers.
Biyombo has been at the centre of many controversial calls. Casey argued in his rant that the Congolese rebounder gets hit all the time but the Cavs aren't called. He was whistled for a flagrant foul when he grabbed James around the neck in Game 3. Some argued that James flopped; others recognized how officials would view contact to the neck.
"Anything to the head or neck or anything, that's not a basketball play, it's a flagrant foul in today's NBA," said broadcaster Paul Jones of NBA TV Canada and radio on Sportsnet and TSN, reached by phone as he arrived in Cleveland ahead of Game 5. "Somewhere you can imagine Charles Oakley, Charles Barkley and those tough guys of the past laughing at what we call a flagrant foul today. Every foul from the Detroit Pistons on Michael Jordan would have been a flagrant one today."
A closer look at the box score from Monday's Game 4 would show that the final tally of personal fouls was even – 17 called on Cleveland, 16 on Toronto. It's no coincidence that as Toronto's points in the paint have improved, the discrepancy in fouls between the two teams has shrunk.
"The Raptors finally got to the point in Game 4 where they said, 'Okay, you're not going to call fouls? Well we'll keep driving in there and eventually as you see us continually getting hit, you'll start to call the fouls,'" Jones said. "I think the Raps have earned the right to be a team that gets to the free throw line."