Are the Blazers Getting Screwed?
In fairness, these fellows aren't whining. This is as calm as playoff referee analysis can possibly get. But the questions deserve a deeper look: should the Blazers have expected this sort of foul disparity?
First, we need to look at what has actually happened out there: the Blazers have taken 79 free throws, and the Rockets have taken 106. That's a bit eye-grabbing.
But all season, Houston was one of the most stingy teams in terms of fouling -- second to only San Antonio, in fact, in the standard measure of "opponent FTM per FGA." Portland -- not exactly a foul-drawing team, as Barrett notes -- drew free throws at a below-average rate over the course of the season.
On the other end, Houston draws fouls at a roughly average rate, and Portland itself fouls at roughly an average rate. Take all these together, and Houston would be expected to have some additional free throws. But 27 additional free throws over four games?
I used regular season own and opponent FTM/FGA figures to suss out in which series games each team fell below, met or exceeded its expected number of free throws. In Game 1 -- a blow-out, if you'll recall -- our regular season numbers would have predicted about 23 FTAs for Portland and 19 FTAs for Houston. Instead, Portland shot 16 free throws and Houston shot 28. But again, this game was a blow-out, and that could very well have affected the final numbers.
In Game 2, Portland took 36 free throws and Houston took 32. Our expectations machine would have predicted 21 for each. Obviously, the teams either racheted up the physicality, or the refs called this game tighter.
In Game 3, Portland took 10 FTAs and Houston had 24. Expectations would have given Portland 21 and Houston 20. Based solely on expectations derived from regular season action, Houston shot more than would be expected and Portland far less.
Game 4 provided a tighter alignment with expectations: Portland shot 17 FTAs, Houston 22. Expectations pegged it at 19 and 18 respectively.
Now, this is a math exercise meant to show whether a macro-based red flag should be raised about the foul-calling in this series. Based on the statistical expectations going in, the data would indicate Game 3 should shoot up a substantial red flag, and Game 4 should offer a minor one.
As noted, Game 1 has other mitigating factors due to the early margin, and Game 2 featured an equally high number of free throws for both teams. But the FTAs in Games 3 and 4 are far enough from expectations that a case-by-case analysis should -- and likely will -- be undertaken by the league.
This is not definitive proof the refs are being too quick on the whistle with regard to the way Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla have guarded Yao Ming, or that Yao is getting away with contact. Far from it. This is -- again -- a math exercise to figure out whether the data suggest we should have expected such a disparity based on the types of teams Houston and Portland are. The data suggests we should not have expected the disparity to this degree.