NBA·Analysis

Are the Raptors really victims of bad refereeing?

Raptors fans have howled at their team's foul-call deficit against Cleveland, but several factors could explain why fewer whistles are going Toronto's way in the Eastern Conference final.

Toronto on wrong side of foul calls vs. Cleveland

Bismack Biyombo and the Raptors find themselves tied two games apiece with the heavily favoured Cavaliers, despite most of the foul calls in the Eastern Conference final going Cleveland's way. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Three minutes into the second quarter of the Toronto Raptors' series-tying 105-99 win over the Cavaliers on Monday, fans at the Air Canada Centre let out a raucous mock cheer after Matthew Dellavedova was whistled for a personal foul on Terrence Ross — the first such call of the game on Cleveland.

Raptors fans give refs the Bronx cheer for first foul call

6 years ago
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Cleveland was assessed its first foul three minutes into the second quarter of game 4. 0:28

The crowd's angst — stoked throughout the playoffs by perceived slights involving everything from referees' calls to the start time of games to, yes, an online sports poll — remained strong well into the second half, when DeMar DeRozan became the first Raptor to be awarded a free throw in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final — nearly 30 minutes in.

Not since 2001 had an NBA team led by 15 points or more at halftime in a conference final game without being sent to the line — more fuel for Raptors fans in the stands and on social media to voice their displeasure regarding the officiating in the series.

Indeed, in the first three games of the series, the Raptors had been called for 73 fouls in comparison to Cleveland's 46, and shot just 56 free throws to 86 for the Cavs.

But has the officiating in this series really been as bad as many fans say? Several factors could explain why fewer calls have been going Toronto's way, and none of them involve conspiracies or Tim Donaghy-like shenanigans.

Aggressive defence

The Cavaliers have the best roster the Raptors have faced all post-season, so Toronto has had to increase its aggressiveness on defence to try to contain the reigning Eastern Conference champions' scoring juggernaut.

Cleveland is scoring 105.7 points per game in the playoffs — more than five points better than any other team in the East, and a whopping 11 more than the Raptors.

The Cavaliers like to attack the rim, drawing defenders in while simultaneously opening up opportunities for kick-outs and swift ball movement around the perimeter to set up the best long-range shot. This strategy was especially evident in games one and two as the Cavaliers attacked the paint for a combined 106 points while shooting 34 per cent from beyond the arc en route to their two blowout wins at home.

In order for the Raptors to contend with the likes of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, not to mention LeBron James, they need to force the Cavaliers into contested jump shots while trying to smother the "big three."

But aggressive defence can lead to fouls, leaving the Raptors with two options: either allow Cleveland's high-octane offence to run rampant, or hack them and send them to the line.

On the other hand, Toronto's offence continues to sink or swim on DeRozan's mid-range game and Kyle Lowry's three-point shooting. Defending those kind of shots doesn't typically result in as many fouls, which could help explain the discrepancy.

Indeed, as the Cavaliers shifted to more of a perimeter game in their two road contests, the final tally on personal fouls in game four was 17 on Cleveland, 16 on Toronto.

Outplayed in Cleveland

One of the most thrown-around statistics after the first game of the series was the fact that both DeRozan and Lowry failed to reach the free-throw line for the first time in 298 career games played together.

But the reality is that the Raptors lost the first two games in Cleveland in lopsided fashion because they were simply outplayed.

The Cavaliers outshot the Raptors by an average of about 12 percentage points while collecting 34 more rebounds and outscoring Toronto by 32 points in the paint. They also topped the Raptors in assists, blocks, fast-break points, and three-point shooting over the two blowouts. Almost no amount of free throws can overcome those numbers.

Game three also proved to be an anomaly for the Raptors. The team was once again called for nearly twice the number of personal fouls than the Cavaliers were, but that only resulted in three more foul shots for Cleveland and a fine for Casey. And they still won that game 99-84.

Imagine what Casey would have said if they weren't victorious. It seems the Raptors didn't need more free throws to win the game, just a record-setting performance from Bismack Biyombo.

Monday night's Game 4 followed suit, with the seemingly one-sided officiating trend continuing in the first half. Prior to DeRozan drawing the Raptors' first shooting foul midway through the third quarter, the Cavaliers had already shot seven times from the line, while also benefiting from a highly debated foul call on Biyombo's above-the-rim denial of James in the dying seconds of the first half.


So how would conspiracy theorists explain the reverse discrepancy in the second half of that game, when the Raptors shot 19 free throws to Cleveland's two? Did the NBA suddenly decide it wanted Toronto in the finals?

No game-changers

While it's easy for players, fans, or even coaches to overreact to some of the more notable calls (or non-calls) against the Raptors, it's important to see the big picture.

The referees in this series have neither made nor missed a call in any of the games played so far that can be reasonably said to have had a dramatic impact on the final result. In fact, only one game in the series has even qualified for one of the league's mea culpa-motivated Last Two Minute Reports.

Other teams can't say the same about their fates in this year's post-season. Just ask San Antonio fans how they feel about the blatantly wrong non-calls in Games 2 and 5 of their second-round series that ultimately swayed it in favour of the Oklahoma City Thunder (and possibly ended the career of Tim Duncan). Or ask Golden State diehards how they feel about the blown travelling call on Russell Westbrook in the Warriors' opening-game loss of the Western Conference final last week.

There's plenty of life left in this series as the Raptors take the court in Cleveland on Wednesday night with the series tied 2-2. While many writers and fans had counted Toronto out before the series began, there's now the potential for a historic upset — and Raptors fans have a chance to enjoy the ride.

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