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Foul or no foul? It’s time for the NBA to give James Harden the yellow card he deserves

James Harden, Referee

Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals was meant to be as close to an NBA Finals preview as the league could offer, as two high-octane offensive teams squared up against one another on Sunday. Yet James Harden’s foul-enticing antics were the storyline that engulfed what would have been a majestic display of high-level play.

It took only one game for Harden and the Houston Rockets to cry wolf against the Golden State Warriors, not only doing so during their post-game comments, but also compiling a list of grievances suggesting the two-time defending champions are largely favored by the officials.

Harden was fouled several times in the first half of Sunday’s game, but didn’t get the benefit of the whistle after this Alfonzo McKinnie contest in the first quarter, blowing the whistle a full second after the ball had missed iron.

Yet Harden proceeded to exploit this call, getting Klay Thompson to bite in several instances, some of which should have been whistled for a foul.

However, it was Harden’s entitled obsession with getting these foul calls that forced him to exaggerate on his jump shot time and time again during the second half, no longer playing a game we know as basketball, but another entirely of his own, which consists in baiting the officials into making a favorable call.

Harden deserved a few calls to go his way in the second quarter, but his inveterate pursuit of free throws to give even more benefit to a shot he already deems as unstoppable — the step-back three — has already reached maniacal levels.

As the game progressed, Harden (and his teammates) began to embellish their landing, after the officials admitted to coach Mike D’Antoni that they missed four of such calls right during half time.

First it was Chris Paul, leaning his entire lower body into Shaun Livingston to simulate a foul.

Then it was Harden again, during the dying seconds of regulation, kicking his legs out to draw a whistle-prayer against Draymond Green — to no avail.

Anyone who has watched Harden shoot time and time again knows his jump shot is fundamentally sound. He lands on the same spot he rises up from, and maybe even half a foot or so ahead when coming to a running jump-stop.

Yet this iteration of “lawn-chair” simulation, as ESPN’s Jay Williams described in Monday’s Get Up!, has taken it a step further, and with no immediate punishment from the league.

In soccer, players who dive or simulate a foul are assessed a yellow card for doing so. In the NBA, there is no such system to immediately punish a player for exploiting the rules of the game or baiting officials into making a call.

The technical foul for simulation is hardly ever assessed in NBA games, despite being in the rule book — and neither is the offensive foul for a player that kicks his legs out when rising for a shot, which has now largely gone away after a few years of trial.

At most, the league will send a memorandum to the player at fault, threatening to fine him $5,000 next time, with the fine going up that amount each time until reaching $30,000 for a fifth offense, when a suspension will be “considered.”

Under current league rules for the postseason, players are fined $5,000 for their first flopping offense, $10,000 for a second, $15,000 for a third, and $30,000 for a fourth. Any player who flops five or more times could be suspended.

To this day, there has yet to be a multiple-flop offense signaled by the league.

James Harden, Rockets

If the league reviews this, it is highly unlikely that Harden would get anything else other than a warning, yet the damage has been done. Officials, as well as NBA executives, have been put on notice of how the Rockets feel the whistle is favoring the Warriors — something that will loom closely throughout the rest of the series.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, officials called fouls on Harden 3-point attempts 95 times during the regular season and five times in the Rockets’ five-game first-round series against the Utah Jazz.

To tally it up, Harden, who played 78 games in 2018-19, gets fouled on a 3-pointer 1.22 times per game in the regular season and once per game in the postseason.

By the metrics, Harden received as many foul calls as he has throughout the playoffs and very close to what he’s gotten in the regular season — as he got the whistle for three free throws one time in Game 1.

Chris Paul, James Harden, Rockets

Yet Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni argued his team should’ve had 20 more free throws. Only for Harden to later say his peace and claim he only wants to be officiated fairly — both playing the victim and avoiding a fine altogether.

“I just want a fair chance, man,” said Harden after a 104-100 loss on Sunday. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it, and I’ll live with the results. But especially we all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi [Leonard]. That can change the entire series.”

So Harden puts the message out there that he feels he could be potentially in danger of suffering an injury like Leonard’s and wants the officials to do something about it.

Yes, the one person drawing these types of silly self-constructed fouls, is the one asking for the mercy of NBA officials after trailing 1-0 in the series.

As you read this, ask yourself — when was the last time you saw a player get more than two whistles for being fouled as a 3-point shooter? If you can’t recall many, it is because this rarely happens in an NBA game. To think Harden would get four or five such calls in Game 1 is both irrational and dishonest — even if the refs did get a few first-half calls wrong.

Draymond Green scoffed at the notion after he was told about Harden’s comments and D’Antoni’s claim that his team could have shot another 20 free throws in the game.

“I’ve been fouled by James (Harden) on a James 3-pointer before,” said Green. “Nah, I ain’t going with that. They also could have possibly shot 20 less free throws. We reached quite a bit. If that’s the case, we could’ve shot 20 more free throws as well. It is what it is. I think we can all sit here and complain about calls after every game. It’s the nature of the game we play. Refereeing is an inexact science.”

“I’m going to contest his shot,” Green added. “I’ve got to contest the shot. When you land three feet ahead of where you shoot the ball from, that’s really not my issue.”

Yet despite all of this, Harden succeeded, muddying up what could have been a storyline of the Warriors making up for their short rest and trumping the Rockets, who flew to the Bay Area in advance to prepare with plenty of time to boot.

The story, as it sits, is about the officiating, to aid the Rockets get the lone thing that can spring them atop the Warriors — the whistle.

Let’s call a spade a spade — James Harden’s 3-point prowess hasn’t been a matter of improvement, but rather more leash thrown his way. In his seven years with the Rockets, Harden has only shot above 37% once, and that hasn’t changed, despite him getting more and more attempts after every offseason.

The Beard is a fantastic player with an endless arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Whether it is his barreling style of play going to the rim, his shifty stop-and-go moves in the lane, his alley-oop plays, or the recently-added feathery floater to keep defenders honest — or even more so, his unstoppable step-back three, as he’s demonstrated throughout the season.

James Harden, Mike D'Antoni

So why does he need to trick the officials into a quick whistle?

Harden has turned this obsession for getting every foul call into a downright vendetta against the referees, one that his teammates have adopted as well, constantly trying to add to the sample size by flailing in several jump shot attempts.

The exaggeration has actually backfired, now making the officials aware of his antics, and becoming reluctant to make a call for an embellishing artist playing to the tune of their whistle.

Houston made by far the most threes than any other team this season, but that is a mere illusion of their efficiency shooting the ball, as they rank only 12th in the league in 3-point percentage. The Rockets are fully aware they will not get remotely close to the 35.6% they hit during the regular season, so they’re ensuring they can max out their profits with a few calls from the zebras.

Sadly enough, this just isn’t basketball, it’s the insane pursuit of abusing the rules and resorting to the dark acts of trickery and deception to muster a result — perhaps the only way Harden and the Rockets can topple the Warriors in this series.

That mentality alone, deserves a yellow card.

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