By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Through four games of the Eastern Conference finals — and with the two most recent contests taking place in Cleveland — the Celtics may be growing a little frustrated with the treatment LeBron James gets from the referees.
James has been, by far, the best player in the series for either team. He’s averaged 32 points, 6.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, and he’s also gone to the free-throw line just a tick under 10 times per game. It’s that last part that might be wearing on some of the Celtics who have been tasked with guarding James.
“Tough. It’s tough,” Marcus Morris told reporters after Game 4, which Cleveland won 111-102. “You know, you’re already playing against arguably the best player in the league. So when you can’t even be like a little bit physical, it’s tough to guard him. You can’t do anything. It’s like foul after foul after foul. At the same time, guys want to play, so it’s like we almost gotta give up baskets.”
The calls in this game weren’t particularly lopsided — 26 called against Boston, 23 against Cleveland, including five on Kevin Love — but Morris’ frustration can be understood after he was called for an offensive foul which left the basketball world scratching its collective head.
In the third quarter alone, 17 total fouls were called, which worked to create a choppy game as the Celtics were trying to mount a comeback.
“Who had 17 fouls? Between the two teams? Is that an Eastern Conference final high for a quarter?” Morris asked reporters. And when a reporter said it felt like the third quarter took an hour to play, Morris agreed: “Yeah. Felt like it.”
Morris was one of three Celtics who were assessed five fouls each in Game 4, a group that included Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Smart offered a comment that was nearly identical to Morris’.
“Yeah it was hard,” Smart told reporters. “We had a lot of guys in foul trouble, so it was kind of hard to play defense, because nobody really wanted to get called for another foul and foul out the game. So it’s kind of hard to play defense when you’re scared, because you know you don’t want to get called because of foul trouble. That played a little part.”
Smart did exude some confidence in the job he did defensively on James.
“I did,” Smart said when asked if he requested to guard LeBron in the fourth quarter. “I mean, you know, our job is to make it as hard as possible for him. I felt like I could do that. You saw it — he didn’t even want to bring the ball up against me to save energy, which we expected. So I just tried to make it as hard as I could for him.”
But on the officiating, Smart also said: “They hit their shots, they executed, we didn’t. But foul trouble definitely was a big key. It was hard to really play. I think any player will tell you that when you’re in foul trouble and when you’re scared of getting in foul trouble, it’s hard to go out there and play.”
The comments are not far off from what Jaylen Brown said after Game 3. In that game — which the Cavaliers won by 30 points — Brown was assessed five fouls. He, too, shared some frustration with the treatment of James by the officials.
“That was key, for me, it took me out of rhythm with the early fouls,” Brown said after the Game 3 loss. “I expected it to be like that, they’re at home, that’s how it goes typically. Trying to guard LeBron James, it’s hard to touch him and stop him without touching him. So the early fouls kind of took me out of rhythm but that’s no excuse to not be aggressive. I’ve got to come out and be better next game.”
Brown did do a better job in Game 4, upping his point total from 10 in Game 3 to 25 in Game 4, while also grabbing six rebounds. But overall, the task of containing LeBron James was too tall for the Celtics as a team in their two games in Cleveland.
The officials may have given the star treatment to the game’s best player at times, but the frustration among the players is something that’s going to have to also be contained if the Celtics are to regain the advantage in this series. That’s a mind-set that’s going to have to come from their coach, who himself didn’t have a single word of criticism toward the referees after the Game 4 loss.
“Never — you won’t hear me complain about officials,” Brad Stevens said late Monday night. “They have a really hard job, and they do a tremendous job — night in, night out. I’ve got nothing bad to say. Nothing but good things.”