The toughest call: Block or charge?
At this time of year
Because this is when he matters most, even if it almost kills him.
Posey has become expert in both pain management and championship celebrations because he is among the best in the league at drawing charges. When the Hornets' forward sees an opponent driving to the basket, he turns into a 6' 8"
Over his 10-year career with six NBA teams, Posey has averaged a negligible 9.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. But his sacrificial approach to defense contributed mightily to two recent championships -- with the Miami Heat in 2005-06 and last season with the Boston Celtics -- and persuaded New Orleans to sign him last summer for $25 million over four years. Posey routinely dives chin-first for loose balls, wrestles through screens and bodies up against larger opponents, but it is his talent for drawing charges that defines his value to New Orleans.
The risks of the most selfless deed in basketball, though, go beyond the physical. That's because the often-fractional difference between a charge and a block call is decided by a referee who has to determine, in a split second: a) were the defender's feet set, b) was he outside the court's semicircle, c) who initiated contact, and d) does the contact merit a call at all? What's really cruel is that despite Posey's skill, anticipation and sacrifice, he could very easily send the player who ran him down to the free throw line. Which can make those postgame walks across the locker room carpet ever more painful.
As defenses tighten and All-Stars attack the hoop recklessly over the weeks of playoffs ahead, the block/ charge call will inevitably make its presence felt as the least understood and most infuriating symbol of postseason intensity. The hunger to attack and defend the paint leads to familiar arguments over who was there first: a violent crash, the whistle, two or more sneakered survivors lying askew and thousands of biased eyewitnesses awaiting justice. While a bang-bang out-of-bounds play might equally test an official's reflexes, the block/charge ruling can result in a personal foul and points, not just possession. "It's an incredibly difficult play to call," says Nuggets coach
That line is one that some of the biggest NBA names love to dance along. When
Back then, every official had his own view of what constituted a charge, in much the same way that each umpire applies his own strike zone to a baseball game. The availability of video has resulted in a more uniform standard in the NBA: Referees study up to three hours of block/charge plays at their six-day preseason camp in Jersey City, and throughout the season they refer to the league's online "video rule book," which is constantly updated with plays that illustrate the right and wrong way to make each call -- an indication of the ever-changing variables at work. "We have a lot of these in our game now, we call them 'passes and crashes,' " says Fryer, playing and replaying a video from last season of Magic forward
Today it is far easier to draw a charge than when Fryer began officiating games in the late 1970s. It used to be that if a defender flinched at all before drawing contact, he was called for a blocking foul. By today's standard upper-body movement is largely irrelevant: The key to drawing a charge in the lane now is to have the feet set before the driver takes his last doomed step. Of course the defender has to be outside the dotted semicircle, which was added in 1997 -- though if he's inside the half-moon, he can at least avoid a blocking foul by jumping straight up with arms high. In such a case the driver could even be called for an offensive foul if he causes excessive contact. Are you starting to see why players, let alone fans, might be confused? "This [interpretation] is hugely misunderstood," says Fryer, who acknowledges that Cavs forward
It's Varejão, the 6' 11" forward-center of top-seeded Cleveland, who is most likely to be in the middle of a charge call that inspires exasperation from players and opposing fans. Among players in this postseason, Varejão was the regular-season leader in offensive fouls drawn, with 52. The Cavaliers ranked No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage and points allowed, and much of the credit belongs to their astute defensive switches, which often culminated in their friendly 26-year-old Brazilian lying back-down on the floor. "It's inspirational to me when Andy puts his body on the line and takes charges," says Cavs coach
Lockdown teams like the Cavaliers and the Celtics emphasize the importance of bodily sacrifice: Their well-practiced rotations liberate Varejão or Boston's
A generation ago defenders protected the basket by delivering hard fouls. "It used to be, Hey, suck it up, get that blood off the floor, and let's shoot free throws," recalls Rockets guard
And so what if, to make his importance stand out, he has to go to the floor sometimes? As the late
If the Cavaliers advance as expected to the second round, they could find themselves facing the Heat -- a series that would put even the best ref's skills to the test. You would have Varejão stepping into the lane to draw charges on the relentlessly penetrating Wade, who led all guards in free throw attempts this season, with 9.8 per game. Wade has his own take on those collisions under the hoop. For all of the preferential treatment he is accused of receiving, he believes he earns his whistles. Especially when he's more horizontal than vertical after launching knee-high into the chest of a defender who appeared out of nowhere, like a deer on the highway. "You're up high, and it's a long way down," says Wade. "When you get hit, you know this is going to be a bad one right here."
And so he waits for the crash to the floor. And then, he hopes, a free throw or two.