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Is LeBron James getting special treatment from refs?

Miami Hesmall forward LeBrJames  talks with referee Monty McCutchen during second half Game 1 NBA finals basketball series against

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James talks with referee Monty McCutchen during the second half at Game 1 of the NBA finals basketball series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tuesday, June 12, 2012, in Oklahoma City. McCutchen wears a patch with the number 57 to honor referee Greg Willard, who has been diagnosed with cancer. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Updated: August 23, 2012 9:54AM

MIAMI — How difficult is it to get LeBron James in foul trouble?

Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, rarely at loss for words, responded with a wince, a sigh and a pause.

‘‘Do I have to answer that question?’’ he said.

I think you just did, I told him.

‘‘I don’t know, man. I don’t know.’’

But it’s a tougher chore than against most players in the NBA, right, Perk?

Another sigh. Another pause. ‘‘I’d rather not answer that question,’’ Perkins said.

His reticence said it all. And Perkins acknowledged as much — it would cost him way too much money to tell us what he really thinks. That’s the simmering frustration over a problem the Thunder trailng 2-1 in the NBA Finals, might not be able to do anything about heading into Game 4 tonight at American Airlines Arena: The LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant matchup — which started so promising for the Thunder in Game 1 — has turned the Heat’s way because of one very simple NBA reality: LeBron can defend any position on the court without getting into foul trouble. Durant cannot.

It’s making an impact. Durant scored 17 fourth-quarter points after picking up his fifth foul of the Thunder’s 100-96 loss in Game 2 — James can’t score that many fourth-quarter points with a force-field around him. But in Game 3, Durant sat out the final 5:41 of the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul and the Heat outscored the Thunder 15-7 to take a 69-67 lead. And he scored two points after picking up his fifth foul with 3:47 to go as the Heat held on for a 91-85 victory.

‘‘A few of them I don’t think were fouls,’’ Durant said Monday prior to practice. But that’s how the cards are dealt. I’ve just got to deal with it.

‘‘I’ve got to play my game and now worry about the officiating because they’re going to make mistakes. We’re all human. So I can’t really concern myself with that. I’ve never been a guy that complains or gets mad at a ref for making a call. So I’ve got to play through it and be myself and whatever happens, happens.’’

There is little doubt that Durant will handle that situation. The bigger concern is James, who can do no wrong in this year’s Finals. He got away with fouling Durant on a late baseline jumper in Game 2. Early in Game 2, James drove the lane with a hop, skip and jump, then pushed Durant out of the way for a rebound basket. Durant called traveling, but to no avail.

Whether or not LeBron is getting special treatment or deserves it is up for debate. But there is no denying that it’s a far cry from last year’s Finals, when LeBron was mysteriously treated like just another player in the Heat’s upset loss to the Mavericks.

James was called for 10 violations in that series — four traveling calls, two offensive fouls, two charging fouls, a double-dribble and a lane violation on a free throw. And he was in rare foul trouble — picking up his second foul in the first quarter of Game 1 and third foul in the second quarter of Game 2.

My theory then was that it was a response by officials to James duping referee Marc Davis in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bulls. Jame fooled Davis into calling a foul on Derrick Rose by snapping his head back to feign contact when Rose swiped at the ball. James‘ deceit — including a mocking wink — was caught by TNT cameras.

Suddenly, James couldn’t buy a break. And for what it’s worth, seven of the 10 violations LeBron committed against the Mavericks were called by crews that included one of the three officials in Game 5 against the Bulls. Hmmm....

This appears to be a new season. James has been called for no violations in the Finals and eight in 21 postseason games. The notable exception was Game 4 against the Celtics, when James was called for two offensive fouls and two charging fouls and fouled out in an overtime loss. The crew in that game included Greg Willard, who worked Game 5 against the Bulls last year. I’m not making this stuff up.

Even if that’s just coincidence, the fact of the matter is that James is committing fewer fouls, fewer violations and getting more calls than he did last year. He was called for one foul in Games 1 and 3. He had four fouls in Game 2, but didn’t pick up his fourth until 6:06 remained in the fourth quarter — he never left the game. And he’s gotten every call he’s needed — including a blocking call on James Harden with 1:16 left in Game 3 and the Heat leading 88-85 after LeBron initiated contact.

That James can play such smothering defense without fouling is a tribute to his immense athletic ability and his knowledge of the game. Whether he’s getting the calls or not, it’s hard to get him in foul trouble. Right?

‘‘It’s not difficult,’’ Thunder shot-blocker Serge Ibaka said. ‘‘Just be aggressive. Kevin Durant, he can do it. Just be aggressive and [force him] to play some defense.’’

I asked Ibaka if James’ ability to defend so well without fouling is admired or envied by opponents. Ibaka speaks many languages, but this is what I think he said in English:

‘‘No. Lebron’s not a good defender, man,’’ Ibaka said. ‘‘He can play defense for two or three minutes, but not 48 minutes. That’s why they’re [switching on defense]. ... Because he can’t guard Kevin one-on-one. You talk about [him being] the best defender. I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone can guard Kevin one-on-one for 48 minutes [with] no help.’’

I don’t think Ibaka meant to disparage James’ defense as much as it sounded like he did. I certainly agree with the idea that James is able to be a difference-making defender because he is able to sit in a zone and roam to the hot spot. He’s never the guy chasing Kyle Korver all over the floor. If he had to do that, he’d be wiped out by halftime.

But he plays that style because he can.

‘‘They’re playing good defense as a team,’’ Ibaka said. ‘‘They’re playing good defense against Kevin, but as a team. That’s why we are having trouble scoring.’’

And it’s even more problematic when James is getting the breaks, or seeming to get the breaks. But whether he’s getting superstar treatment, the benefit of the doubt from officials or just playing smarter, his near-flawless defense can’t be ignored as a difference in this series. And it’s a big problem for Kevin Durant and the Thunder.

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