It got lost in the generally poor play of the Bulls in their season-finale loss to the New Jersey Nets Wednesday–which pushed them from the second seed to the fifth seed in the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs and a first-round rematch with the Miami Heat–but there was ample evidence for NBA conspiracy theorists to consider. The NBA has kowtowed to its stars for decades, most recently siding with Tim Duncan against referee Joey Crawford, and it takes care to make sure the marquee players stay alive as long as possible in the playoffs. What’s good for TV ratings is good for the league.
So was there hanky-panky in LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers moving past the Bulls on the last night of the regular season? While the Cavs were winning comfortably at home, the Bulls were being charged with 33 fouls to the Nets’ 26 in New Jersey. That led to a 38-27 free-throw discrepancy, with the Cavs making 26 to the Bulls’ 20–not the margin of victory in the 106-97 final, but close. While there’s no denying the Nets took the play to the Bulls, it wasn’t just a case of the Bulls settling for jump shots and the Nets getting fouls going to the basket. In fouling out, Luol Deng was called for four offensive fouls–two especially doubtful in the third quarter, when the Bulls were rallying and he was whistled for a charge on a fast break, then for pushing off in the half-court offense.
The result? King James and his Cavs get the cushier second seed and an easier road to the conference finals, while the Bulls get the defending NBA champions the Miami Heat, who also figure to get the calls given the star power of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade–much as they did at the end of their six-game series last year.
Of course, this whining will come off as crocodile tears to the many teams–the New York Knicks and every opponent the Bulls faced in the NBA Finals in their six championships–who used to complain that Michael Jordan and the Bulls always got the calls when push came to shove. Where the NBA’s caste system is concerned, karma is apparently involved, and what goes around, comes around.