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Posted: Wednesday April 22, 2009 3:44PM; Updated: Wednesday April 22, 2009 5:50PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

The toughest call: Block or charge? (cont.)

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Hardest Chargers
In addition to getting the benefit of the doubt from referees, these stars are the best at finishing whatever drives they start
1. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers: He launches so far from the basket, with so much hang time, that it's difficult for defenders to set their feet before he takes off.
2. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat: As proved by his ceaseless forays in the 2006 Finals, Wade is tough to stop simply because he attacks the rim with singular ferocity.
3. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets: Because he generates offense from the post as well as the perimeter, he gives help defenders less opportunity to get in his way.
4. Chris Paul, G, Hornets: His ability to dish on the drive means that opponents hesitate to slide in front of him and leave another Hornet open for an easy basket.
5. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers:He's often double-teamed on the perimeter; if he beats those defenders, there's little chance that a third can rotate in time to draw the charge.
Highly Charged
These defenders have the best chance of changing the outcome of a playoff game by popping up in the path of a scorer
1. Anderson Varejao, F Cavaliers: With his arms and legs splayed out in a gigantic X, Varejao is almost impossible to avoid once he has claimed his spot in front of the basket.
2. James Posey, F, Hornets: When he was with Miami, his charge taking was the defensive complement to Dwyane Wade's scoring in the 2006 Finals. The 6' 8" Posey, always seeking contact, puts his body at risk against opponents of all sizes.
3. Jermaine O'Neal, C, Heat: The five-time All-Star is an exception in that he excels at both shot blocking and staying put to draw contact -- a testament to his decision-making. "The biggest negative of taking charges is getting kneed in the knee a lot," says O'Neal, "and that's one thing I worry about, obviously, with my knees."
4. Leon Powe, F, Celtics: The 6' 8" backup is the NBA's best at drawing charges on the ball, frustrating the likes of Magic center Dwight Howard. "He's always mad at me," says Powe. "I'll bump him, bump him to set him up, see if he falls for it -- then step right in the way of the basket. Nine times out of 10 he'll just run me over."
5. Derek Fisher, G, Lakers: The 13-year veteran uses anticipation and court smarts to shadow opposing point guards and draw charging fouls on the perimeter. "My body has calloused over from taking charges," says Fisher, who has built up his neck muscles to help keep the back of his head from hitting the court.

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 Rashard Lewis, after dishing the ball, leveling Cavaliers guard Shannon Brown in the lane for a charge. "His momentum carries him into the defender," Fryer says. "In the old days we may lay off that play [and make no call], but it's getting to be [like a] train wreck, so we say, What's the call? It's an offensive foul."

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 Anderson Varej„o is among the best at avoiding or drawing fouls while in the semicircle. "He really works at it. Even though he flops a lot, he's still very good at getting into the defensive position and knowing when to go vertical."

It's Varej„o, 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, Varej„o 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 Mike Brown. "He's not afraid to take one across the chops either. He'll know that it's our ball going the other way."

Lockdown teams like the Cavaliers and the Celtics emphasize the importance of bodily sacrifice: Their well-practiced rotations liberate Varej„o or Boston's Glen (Big Baby) Davis to seek a charge, knowing that a teammate will shift over and cover his man. "Our defense is about getting our body to the spot," says Boston coach Doc Rivers, who used to give $100 cash bonuses for each drawn charge when he was running Orlando. (The league has since outlawed the practice as a salary-cap violation.) "When you're a great help defensive team, [opponents] know -- even if it's not a charge -- that somebody's going to be there and it's going to be physical."

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 Brent Barry, 37. But since 1993 the league has suppressed its thuggish image by giving flagrant fouls and suspensions to overly aggressive defenders. So in this generation the new villain becomes a player like Varej„o -- who by the traditional standards of Bill Laimbeer or Bruce Bowen isn't villainous at all. If anything, he should be pitied, like one of those destitute souls who runs in front of moving cars for the insurance money. "Sometimes I hear I'm a dirty player, he's going to flop, whatever," says Varej„o. "But you can see I never hit nobody. I just look for a way to be important to my team."

And so what if, to make his importance stand out, he has to go to the floor sometimes? As the late Johnnie Cochran might have put it, if he doesn't fall, he won't get the call. Varej„o has been drawing charges since he was a skinny teenager playing with grizzled pros in the Brazilian league -- the age when he unwittingly gained an advantage by growing out his dreadlocks to their current Sideshow Bob length. Now his hair splashes out with each flop to emphasize the punishment he is absorbing.

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 Varej„o 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.

 
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