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NBA still grappling with rewarding James Harden for ref bait

James Harden, Rockets

Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals brought along plenty of controversy, introducing terms like “landing space” and refreshing others like verticality in a polemical discussion involving James Harden and his 3-point attempts. The NBA declared he was not fouled on the last play of regulation, which featured Harden shooting a contested 3-pointer while leaning his lower body forward in an obvious effort to exaggerate a foul.

Harden had been fouled on previous possessions, but given his history of manipulating officials and the rules within the game, the Houston Rockets got no sympathy from the league.

In a recent deep dive into this matter, ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted the clear philosophical differences between the Rockets and Golden State Warriors, comparing an early play in Game 2 of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Clippers, in which Stephen Curry chose to escape-dribble after pump-faking Montrezl Harrell instead of leaning into him for foul shots. Curry missed a consequent relocation 3-pointer, but it was a play he could live with.

Harden, on the other hand, has sought every opportunity to trick the officials into favorable calls, which has left the Rockets irate, now that refs are seasoned into his antics:

The league is still grappling with whatever it is Harden is doing on these step-back 3s, let alone the jagged intricacies of his driving game. In contrasting the “pump-and-jump into a defender” play — the one Curry did not make against Harrell — with Harden’s “landing space” attempts, several coaches and executives offered this distinction: Curry is tricking the opponent; Harden is tricking the referees. One is closer to real basketball.

Lowe once again noted an important distinction:

Those two acts are different. Again: They are cousins, not immediate family. But [Warriors’] illegal screens and under-the-radar grabbing and holding could be framed as tricking referees, too.”

Yet the longtime senior writer maintained there is a clear line of thought for officials. One is part of the organic ebb and flow of a competitive basketball game, while the other is a premeditated effort to test the limits of NBA rules:

All of the Rockets’ complaints really come down to Harden. They surely know he will get little sympathy. He has led the league in free throw attempts in six of the past seven seasons. He drives and winds up to shoot 3s in some instances more to draw contact than to try to direct the ball into the basket. He has a history of flopping.

Prior to deciding between shooting and blocking fouls, block or charge, referees are part of a basketball game to police and harmonize a competition, not to test the limits of human vision and brain processing by nailing every call. That is the major disconnect between Houston’s game plan around Harden’s antics and what the rest of the league sees after every attempt to seek contact.