Let's get this out of the way: for two straight games, the Rockets barely lost to NBA championship contenders because forces outside the Rockets' control intervened.
Both time, James Harden was hung out to dry. He didn't deserve a suspension for lightly kicking LeBron James, and he didn't deserve the referees' deciding to swallow their whistle last night when it mattered most.
After the game, Rockets fans were furious. We're still furious, in fact. It didn't help that some of the conversation fell along the lines of "Harden deserved it" and "what does he expect?" Well, one expects that when a 6-foot-9, 260 pound man slams his arm down on his wrists, the refs at least acknowledge it.
The Harden who Cried Foul.— Myles Brown (@mdotbrown) March 5, 2015
Harden can cry all he wants. That was clean....— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) March 5, 2015
Tom Ziller, one of the most reasoned basketball writers in the world, gave the only rational criticism of Rockets' fans beef in his column this morning.
But here's the problem with relying on whistles to get your points: You're relying on outside forces to determine your success and that's always perilous. Harden, and by extension Houston, are relying on two sets of outside forces. There's the opponents, whom Harden needs to commit fouls, and the officials, whom Harden needs to blow the whistle.
That's true. It's not as controllable a method of scoring as a jump shot or an actual layup, just more efficient. But that's, frankly, besides the point for last night.
James Harden made a basketball play. For everyone who criticizes players for settling for jump shots, or the Rockets for shooting too many three-pointers, how can they also jump on Harden for attacking the basket? Ziller contends that Harden "needs" opponents to foul him, but that's not true.
Harden is leads the league in points on drives and is third in points per drive, per NBA.com. He's shooting 68.4 percent on driving layups and 58.9 percent in the restricted area. He doesn't need to get fouled, it just happens a lot.
Harden baits opponents into fouling him, as he did to Zach Randolph on the play. He puts the ball in front of his body and dares opponents to slap at it. Randolph did, and got Harden on the wrists.
There shouldn't be punishment for playing like this. It's a clean play. It's not even close to flopping or some head-jerking movements Harden has rightfully been criticized for. Is he supposed to not bring the ball up from his dribble to go for a layup? Is he supposed to change his practiced movements because other players can't help himself?
The refs missed an obvious call last night. It happens. It came at a stomach-turning moment and led to an objectively great Marc Gasol shot for the game-winner. The Rockets and James Harden deserved a shot at overtime, and the referees missed it.
Nothing "caught up" to James Harden last night. People claiming he won't get those calls in the playoffs are wrong for two reasons:
- That is not the type of call referees call less of in the playoffs. More body contact is allowed, touch fouls are ignored and so on. A blatant hack on a drive to the basket will get called at the same rate in May as it is in March.
- It's not the playoffs yet.