There will be people who believe the Houston Rockets‘ Game 1 loss at Golden State on Sunday was the basketball gods exacting their revenge on the NBA‘s reigning MVP, James Harden, for his sins against beautiful basketball.
As you well know, Harden’s game is predicated on an array of weapons: A stepback 3 that’s one of the most terrifying shots in today’s NBA, a stop-and-start feel for the game that may be second to none, a newly instituted floater, and – this is the part that has so offended the basketball gods – an ability to draw fouls.
Harden has led the NBA in free throw attempts for five of the past seven years. In the two seasons where he didn’t lead the league, he finished in second and in third. This is typically a category dominated by bruising big men who fight in the trenches down low, but Harden’s done it mostly on the perimeter. And plenty of people – perhaps even a few of the basketball gods – think that’s playing the game the wrong way. Sometimes, it feels like Harden isn’t even trying to get to the rim, or attempt a shot. It can just feel like Harden is using his acting abilities in concert with his impossible-to-guard basketball skills to bait a referee into calling a foul on him so he can get two or three free shots from the line.
For people who feel this way about Harden, Sunday’s 104-100 Warriors victory was the basketball gods taking their pound of flesh.
The basketball gods’ instrument was the referees. At least four times in the first half – and at least two more times in the second half – Warriors’ defenders encroached in Harden’s or in one instance Chris Paul‘s landing space as they descended back to earth after launching a 3. Usually, the perpetrator was Klay Thompson. All season long, that’s been a point of emphasis for NBA referees. If a defender doesn’t let a shooter have a clean landing, it’s been called a foul all season. And that’s for good reason: Those plays can often result in injury. (See: Zaza Pachulia vs. Kawhi Leonard, Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals.)
And yet on Sunday, again and again and again (and again and again and again), referees neglected to call those plays as fouls. When officiating analyst Steve Javie, an NBA referee for 25 years, was brought onto the game telecast, he had a pretty clear take: “They should have been fouls.” According to Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, the referees came up to him at halftime and admitted the missed calls. “They missed four of them – that’s 12 foul shots,” D’Antoni told reporters. “We could’ve easily gone to the line another 20 times.” Harden himself voiced his displeasure afterward: “I just want a fair chance,” he said. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called.”
There are a couple of caveats to be tossed in here. One is that the game was poorly officiated on both sides. The entire fourth quarter seemed to be one big makeup call: The fifth foul on Steph Curry with a little more than eight minutes left, where he clearly got all ball…the phantom call on Andre Iguodala a few seconds later, after which Warriors fans chanted (somehow without irony) while Harden shot his free throws, “Refs you suck!” And even a call on Kevon Looney earlier where he sure didn’t seem to make any contact with Harden on a jump shot.
The second caveat has to do with the irony of Harden saying refs should call the game how it’s supposed to be called. Plenty of basketball purists would say Harden doesn’t play the game how it’s supposed to be played. A big chunk of his game is predicated on the referees seeing a defender make contact with Harden, whether real contact or imagined contact, and calling a foul. Harden is a genius. He has hacked the system. He finds glitches and exploits them. But much of his style of basketball depends on referees continuing to have the same interpretations of fouls that he believes they should have. And so Sunday was then a live-by-the-foul/die-by-the-foul moment for Harden. The referees missed plenty of calls: About this, there should be no dispute. But that’s what happens when your game depends so much on the referees. Overall, NBA referees are excellent at what they do. But they are human. And they miss calls.
If you don’t like how Harden plays basketball, I get it. He flops. A lot. So does Chris Paul. And so do plenty of NBA players. And so do plenty of professional athletes across all sports, trying their damnedest to get any possible edge. There are two ways to look at Houston’s loss in Game 1: One is that the referees screwed the Rockets. And that they did, not calling a handful of calls relating to defenders encroaching in the landing areas – calls they’ve made all year long.
The other way is that a significant portion of Harden’s greatness – a significant portion of his MVP award from last season – is based on convincing referees to see the game the way he wants them to see it. Sometimes he is, in fact, fouled when he does his arm-flailing thing. Other times he’s not fouled, yet he’s able to convince the referees otherwise.
Look at it that way, and James Harden on Sunday was the boy who cried wolf. Did referees miss a whole bunch of calls against Harden in Game 1, enough missed calls that they might have swayed the outcome of the game? Absolutely. A foul should be a foul, no matter if it’s in the regular season or the playoffs, during the opening minutes of the first quarter or the final seconds of the game, in a play that involves the reigning MVP or a journeyman bench player.
But if you cry wolf to the referees too many times, sometimes the referees won’t be there to save you when you need it most.