James Harden

James Harden is the most talented offensive player in the NBA. However, if he wants to get past the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals, he will need to stop hunting foul calls and instead focus on making shots.

While much of the basketball world is debating whether Kevin Durant has finally surpassed LeBron James as the best all-around player in the NBA, one thing remains indisputable. James Harden is the most talented offensive player on the planet. Though he may not possess the height of the nearly 7-foot-tall Durant, Harden’s game doesn’t look up to anyone.

Besides Steph Curry, who helped usher in the bombs away mindset of the current NBA, no player has impacted the league’s current style of play more than “The Beard.” The Houston Rockets’ guard may not have invented the step-back three-pointer, but he certainly has perfected it.

According to the NBA’s advanced statistics, Harden led the league (in both makes and attempts) in step back three-pointers. He knocked down 212 of 542 during the 2018-19 regular season. In spite of an added degree of difficulty, that’s an impressive 38.9 percent clip.

Other free-shooting NBA stars were not even in the same solar system in terms of the step back three.  Curry converted 41 of 68 attempts (60.3 percent). Paul George converted 29 of 63 attempts (46 percent). Damian Lillard converted on 16 of 44 attempts (36.4 percent).

Nobody comes close to shooing or making as many step backs as Harden. It is clear though that everybody in the league is trying to get in on the fun. It’s as if Oprah walked into the players’ lounge and started handing out step backs to everybody on an NBA roster.

“You get a step back! He gets a step back! Everybody gets a step back!”

Even centers such as Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid are breaking out the step back trey on a regular basis. You simply cannot watch an NBA game without seeing the shot attempted. That was certainly not the case even a few years ago.

Combined with his handle, strength, quickness, Euro-step skills and crafty, left-hand finishing abilities, Harden is simply unguardable in a one-on-one situation.

That’s why he led the league by averaging 36.1 points per game, more than eight points ahead of the closest competitor. Harden’s season included a streak of 32-consecutive game scoring at least 30-points. The streak is second in league history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game run during the 1961-62 season.

Harden’s step back game isn’t the only thing that sets him apart from others as a scorer. He also gets to the free throw line like no one else.

He also led the NBA in free throw attempts this season with 858. Giannis Antetokounmpo was second with 686.

Because it is nearly impossible for defenders to tell whether Harden is going to use his dribble to pull a step back three or attack the basket, he gets hacked far more than anybody else in the league. That’s where things get tricky.

Harden has gone full-Hollywood in terms of trying to get to the foul line. He is seemingly unsatisfied unless he gets to the free throw line after every single shot. How else can it be explained why Harden flails and falls like one of those inflatable tube thingies on nearly every shot when a defender is in close proximity?

The reigning NBA MVP’s incessant hunt for whistles it making it nearly impossible for referees to officiate his games with any type of consistency or fluidity.

The Rockets organization cried foul after losing a close Game 1 in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Golden State Warriors. Harden hit the deck after several three-point attempts where contact was made with the defender. On some of the shot attempts, the team had a fair gripe that the defender invaded Harden’s landing space. On others, it was Harden who initiated the contact by jumping forward, sideways or some other unnatural motion. The officials missed some of the same calls for Warriors’ shooters.

Houston did not stop at complaining about the perceived non-calls though. The Rockets put together a memo that argued that poor officiating cost the team a trip to the Finals last year. The memo detailed a play-by-play analysis of the officiating during the Rockets’ Game 7 loss to the Warriors. The team’s (totally unbiased) conclusion was that poor officiating cost Houston nearly 19 points. The Rockets lost that game by nine points.

If the Rockets put as much effort into putting together a strategy to attack the Warriors defense as they have attacking NBA officials, maybe the team wouldn’t find itself down 0-2 right now.

That’s not to say that officials are perfect. After all, Harden was poked in the eye by Draymond Green during Game 2 and did not get a foul call. I have to believe that if the refs weren’t so used to seeing Harden flop all over the court so often, he might have gotten a delayed call even if the official didn’t see the contact.

If the Rockets want any chance of upsetting the Warriors in the playoffs, Harden will have to stop trying so hard to get foul calls and just try to make shots. His skillset will get him to the line more than any player in the league already. Embellishing contact on every play only makes officials swallow their whistles in hope of avoiding getting duped. It’s hard to tell if it’s a hard foul or a Harden flop.

As they saying goes, “Fool me once…”

Here’s a free suggestion for the analytics team who put together the Rockets’ “Mugger Report.” Try counting how many times Harden falls to the floor after a missed shot (or complains to an official instead of getting back on defense) and allows a five-on-four opportunity for the Warriors.

I’m not a Harden hater. I’d just hate to see Harden flop his way to a second-round exit. He should rely on his talents and teammates to beat the Warriors, not the referees.

Be sure to check In the Clutch online and also follow Ishmael on Twitter @ishcreates. Subscribe to The St. Louis American’s YouTube page to see weekly sports videos starring Ishmael and Melvin Moore at youtube.com/stlamericanvideo.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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