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  • James Harden makes his living at the line. But while the Rockets star is a master of drawing fouls, he’s yet to figure out a way to adapt when the referees swallow their whistles in the postseason.
By Andrew Sharp
April 29, 2019

With 9.1 seconds left in Sunday’s Rockets-Warriors game, Houston was down three when James Harden pulled up from the top of the key and jumped two feet forward, tangling his legs with Draymond Green. Harden missed the game-tying three. Seconds later, a loose ball went out of bounds and Chris Paul bumped a ref while arguing a call, earning his second technical and an ejection, as Golden State's ensuing free throws effectively ended the game. Afterward, Harden met with reporters and said all he’s asking for is a fair chance. Mike D’Antoni said that officials personally apologized to him for a handful of missed calls in the first half. Daryl Morey took to Twitter and invoked the 2006 Finals. A Rockets podcast invoked Kings-Lakers in 2002.

Honestly, all of this is a little embarrassing. Houston’s frustration is understandable and working the refs through the media is a longstanding playoff tradition, but come on. If Harden wants to be one of the greatest players ever, he can't be this preoccupied with officials. If the Rockets want to be to a title team, they can't lose a close game to a hated rival and then spend the following 90 minutes pretending they were victims of some grievous injustice that will stain the legacy of this series.

We know the Rockets. This is a basketball team that’s thrived by pushing the boundaries of basketball and capitalizing on every advantage available—a strategy that has, recently, included an MVP candidate drawing fouls at league-best rates and exploiting even the slightest bit of contact for ultra-efficient gain. That part is fine. The problem is that sometimes pushing the boundaries ends with an actual boundary being drawn. In that case, great teams and great players are supposed to adapt. That’s where Houston seemed to be lost on Sunday.

In general, Harden’s strategy with officials is inarguably smart. It can be polarizing at times—or, say, any time Harden has been mentioned on the internet for the past five years—but it works. Houston finished with the second-best offense in the NBA and Harden put together one of the most dominant offensive seasons in league history, manufacturing almost 10 of his 36.1 points per game at the line. In 2017 and then again this season, Harden attempted more free throws than any guard since Michael Jordan in 1986. He's led the league in free throws for five straight seasons. And to be clear, drawing fouls is a real skill. Harden has worked at this year after year, and each season he becomes a little more impossible to guard. With supernatural body control and lightning quick reflexes, he's turned this phase of the game into its own art. It’s part of his genius, and when he retires, it will be part of his legend.

Given that context, it’s insulting to both the game and the league to have an entire franchise pretend that, actually, everything Harden does is fairly conventional. Instead, the Rockets seemed to be arguing, the only thing that changed Sunday was that an entire crew of officials went rogue and ignored the fundamentals of the rulebook.

"I just want a fair chance," Harden said post-game. "Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results.” Then he compared himself to Kawhi Leonard, ignoring that Kawhi was fading away when Zaza Pachulia injured him in 2017, while Harden spent Sunday afternoon kicking his legs out and floating forward into any defender who tried to contest his jumpers.

Officiating has always been an incredibly difficult job. Harden and the Rockets make it close to impossible. The Rockets were both initiating and exaggerating contact on nearly every offensive possession Sunday. Some of those exchanges led to real fouls, others led to contact that can and should be ignored by officials, and in any game, refs have a split second to delineate between the two categories. Are they going to miss calls? Of course they will. But Harden and Paul don’t help anything by blurring the lines even further, seeking out whistles constantly. Each of them has a right to land cleanly on jumpers, but when you look up and see them repeatedly kicking their legs out or twisting their torso into defenders, it's fair to assume that strategy is just as likely to cost them the benefit of the doubt as it is to earn an extra call.

Once players start actively seeking contact like that, they assume the risk of a no-call. That’s the problem Houston had Sunday, and it’s one of the problems Harden has always had in the playoffs. As opponents become more familiar with his tendencies, defenses become more disciplined and foul him less often. Plus, officials tend to swallow their whistle in big playoff games. For both reasons, Harden's free throw advantages tend to wane in postseason. The math underpinning his offense begins to change—particularly if Harden is going to answer good defense by initiating even more contact and making each shot even tougher. That was the real story Sunday, overshadowed by the weird officiating controversy.

Harden finished Game 1 with 35 points, but he was 9 of 28 from the field. He was 4 of 16 from three. The Rockets starters finished the game with a 76.9 offensive rating, while the team finished at 102.0—14 points below where Houston was in the regular season. Harden wasn't the only player who struggled, but he's supposed to be the star. He's shooting 35% from the field in these playoffs, which makes this the worst postseason shooting performance of his career so far.

His problem in the playoffs, at least over the past few seasons, is that teams begin to take away the lay-ups and threes that comprise most of his offense. When that happens, Harden is unable or unwilling to counter. While a player like Kyrie Irving can feast in the midrange once teams begin shadowing him on the three-point line, Harden refuses to change his approach. He will continue taking the exact same shots that made him great during the regular season, even as he sees playoff defenses much better equipped to contest everything he does well.

On Sunday, I don't deny that this Klay Thompson contest should've been a foul, and this one should've been called too. If the refs really did apologize to D'Antoni at halftime, I'm sure they meant it. But Harden was given nine of his 14 free throws in the second half, and if we're going to start Zaprudering each Harden shot, we can also look here and here, and then be clear: on that three at the end, the officials got the call exactly right.

Ultimately, all the grainy Twitter videos obscure a fundamental point that's more inconvenient for Houston. Harden continues to struggle in the playoffs. He's not awful—he's still one of the better players in the league, capable of generating open looks for teammates all game long—but he's rarely great, either. That final play with Draymond was a microcosm of everything. The refs hadn't been making that call for either team, for the entire game, and it didn't matter to Harden. He couldn't, or wouldn’t, adapt.

Harden is phenomenal. When people say he could finish his career as the second or third best shooting guard of all time, they're not wrong. But he needs more imagination in his offense. He's too skilled to spend every spring playing into the defense's hands and betting his team's fate on the whims of refs. When he's not hitting contested threes, he should have a better backup plan than kicking his legs out and hoping for a bailout.

Maybe the officiating will be different in the next game. We’ll see. The Rockets are reportedly lobbying hard. But in the end, and certainly for the rest of this Warriors series, Harden has bigger problems to solve.

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Eagle (-2)
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