had three turnovers in Game 4, including a crucial traveling call. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals was lamentably over-officiated, reducing an engaging contest to fits and starts. Few possessions Tuesday seemed to run their course without a whistle, and between them, the Pacers and Heat combined for 55 fouls despite the game's glacial pace.
The referees made their presence felt throughout Indiana's 99-92 victory, particularly in the final minute of the fourth quarter with crucial calls against Miami. The first was a moving screen violation called against LeBron James with 56 seconds remaining and the Heat trailing 96-92, his sixth foul. There's some room for debate on the merits of that call, but at the very least James sidesteps in a way that trips Lance Stephenson before the Heat forward is able to establish proper screening position.
The second call, a traveling violation against Dwyane Wade with 26.9 seconds left and the Heat still down 96-92, proved to be even more questionable. In that instance, the whistle came on a sequence that Wade executes in virtually every game: the one-dribble step-back. After losing Paul George with an initial pump fake, Wade takes a single dribble inside the three-point arc, hops back to his opposite foot behind the line and settles in for yet another pump fake. In real time, the slow speed of Wade's step-back makes the move seem illegal. But by slowing down the footage and evaluating Wade's move according to the wording of the traveling rule, we find that isn't the case:
For reference, here is the full text of the relevant passage from the NBA's 2012-13 official rules (Rule 10, Section XIII, item b):
"A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball. A player who receives the ball while he is progressing must release the ball to start his dribble before his second step.
The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball."
The operative word is bolded above, as the most crucial determination to be made on this play is when Wade gains control of the ball. If he gathers his dribble either simultaneously or slightly after planting his foot (as appears to be the case), then his play is legitimate. If he gains control before taking that step, then it would count as the first in his sequence and thus make the play a violation.
In real time, the slow execution of Wade's step-back seems to give it a physically impossible hitch -- as if he paused for a brief moment in mid-air before landing. Plays with odd timing typically invite fan reaction and a possible whistle, and unfortunately Wade's move proved too unusual for the officials to properly evaluate the legality of his footwork.