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Not all fouls created equal in Bulls-Heat series

Dwyane Wade heis defended by Bulls Kyle Korver left Luol Deng fourth period Game 2 Eastern Conference Finals United Center

Dwyane Wade of the heat is defended by the Bulls Kyle Korver, left, and Luol Deng in the fourth period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the United Center Wednesday, May 18, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 30, 2011 12:17AM

Kyle Korver isn’t a great
defender in anyone’s book, unless it’s a family member’s book. Even then, you would have to figure there are doubts.

But on one play in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Korver did everything he or anybody else could do against Dwyane Wade. The Miami Heat star drove left along the baseline, rose as he neared the backboard and .  .  . nothing. He had nowhere to go, no room to shoot and no one to pass to, thanks to Korver and the Bulls’ help defense.

If you didn’t see what happened next, you probably can guess.

Whistle. Foul, Korver.

If he touched Wade, it must have felt like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.

‘‘It’s frustrating, for sure,’’ Korver said.

I know: This is the NBA. Stars get calls. But after all these years, I still don’t know what is and isn’t a foul in the league.

‘‘It’s tough for us [to tell] sometimes, you know?’’ Korver said.

This isn’t a column about how the refs are jobbing the Bulls. This isn’t about how terrible NBA officiating is. This is about how selective the calls are.

Star system rules

Players get tangled and mangled inside the paint on almost every possession. It’s not an overstatement to say that a whistle could be blown multiple times on every trip into the lane. Often, there isn’t even one.

That’s OK. We get it. It’s a man’s game, and if you choose to go to the basket, you have to be prepared to be relieved of your noggin.

The maddening part is what happens outside the lane, and we’ve seen it time and again in this series. If there’s a hint of contact there, even a baby’s breath of contact, it’s not unusual to hear a whistle. This is what makes people crazy. After the brutalizing that goes unpunished inside, officials find their inner Dr. Phil when it comes to ticky-tack perimeter stuff.

I have a theory about this: There is so much contact on every play that officials don’t look at particulars so much as they look at situations.

In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden went to the basket on a fast break. The Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, who has a reputation for being a defensive liability, met him there. Nowitzki made a passing attempt at stopping Harden, who scored. There was hardly any contact, but that didn’t stop the ref from calling a foul on Nowitzki.

Two factors were at work to explain the foul that wasn’t a foul:

1. Everybody knows Nowitzki is bad at defense.

2. A fast-break layup? There’s bound to be contact.

Whistle. Foul, Nowitzki.

A cheap, easy call that was completely unfair.

Nowitzki couldn’t complain much because he gets about every call known to man when he has the ball. But as a defender, well, he has a hell of a jump shot, and the officials know it.

Korver was up against the same thing against Wade. In his case, it was even more of an outrage. Wade is going to get calls. On defense, Korver has about as much chance of getting the benefit of the doubt from a ref as he does of getting inducted into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame.

Still, that wasn’t a foul.

It’s not breaking news that Wade and LeBron James get calls. It always has been so with stars in the NBA. What’s frustrating to watch is when a complementary player — the Bulls’ Ronnie Brewer, for example — comes within an inch of his life under the rim and the whistles stay silent.

‘Just part of the game’

There’s nothing inconsistent about the officiating in the NBA; it’s consistently unfair to players who aren’t stars or who have a reputation for being defensively weak.

Part of the problem is that the game has become far too physical. The officials have aided and abetted that, to the point where what seems to be an obvious foul isn’t. And when they finally do blow their whistles, observers can’t help but comparison-shop: You called that a foul and not the elbow that put our guy in traction?

So what constitutes a foul? Nobody really knows.

‘‘I didn’t go to officiating school,’’ Brewer said. ‘‘I feel like every NBA player, when they get a foul called on them, doesn’t think it’s a foul. .  .  .

‘‘It’s tough to try to officiate when you’ve got athletes like LeBron and D-Wade and great defenders trying to guard them. It’s going to be a physical game.’’

Different referees call games differently. Some call a lot of fouls, some are more lenient, some tend to favor the home team.

‘‘As a player, you’ve just got to get a feel for what you can get away with,’’ center Joakim Noah said. ‘‘Sometimes they call it tighter than others. That’s just part of the game.’’

I heard the ‘‘it’s just part of the game’’ explanation from several players after the Bulls’ practice Friday. There’s a very good reason for that.

‘‘I want to keep my money where it’s at,’’ Korver said, laughing.

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