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James Harden's 3-point fouls are the NBA's newest problem

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Harden has gotten to the line on three-point shots more often than any other NBA team.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

James Harden is one of the most gifted scorers in the NBA. That much isn’t breaking news. But in Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system predicated on the high screen-and-roll, Harden’s developed a newfound talent of drawing fouls on three-point shots — a talent that has put referees into tight spots throughout the season.

In the Rockets’ Game 2 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the league’s second-leading scorer scurried over a screen with Patty Mills following closely behind. He then jumped into Mills, whose hands were up, initiating the contact before hoisting the ball at the rim. Mills was whistled for a foul, a call that sent the entire AT&T Center into shock and left Gregg Popovich beside himself.

Chasing Harden over a screen has become death by the foul shot. It’s the new signature move of a crafty player whose game is otherwise predicated on a hypnotic handles and a devastating Euro-step.

This is nothing new

Harden’s become one of the league’s best scorers not because he doesn’t miss shots. It’s because he knows how to get to the free-throw line, and under D’Antoni, that savvy has been injected with nitrous.

Harden attempted nearly 11 free throws per game during the regular season. The only other player to average more than 10 attempts this year was Russell Westbrook, but the two go about getting to the charity stripe in two different manners. While Westbrook puts the pressure on the defense by running full speed at the rim and daring someone to stop him, Harden is sagacious with his attack.

He shrewdly changes speed and direction, catching the unwitting defender off guard. Harden hooks defenders arms as he goes up, putting the pressure on nearby referees to make the call.

This season, he’s used screens to his advantage, slowing down to get a shot up just as a defender goes over a pick. It’s called a foul almost every time.

He isn’t the only player in the league to do so. Isaiah Thomas has become adept at drawing fouls over-the-screen behind the arc, as have several other distance-shooting ball handlers, including Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.

But no one is doing it as often as Harden

Harden drew a foul on a three-point attempt 124 times during the regular season, according to Basketball-Reference. Only two of those attempts converted into four-point plays.

Westbrook was the only other player to shoot more than 800 free throws this season, and he was fouled on threes just 25 times. In fact, of the remaining seven players to attempt more than 500 free throws during the regular season, none came even close to Harden’s mark.

Not good enough? How about this: None of the league’s top three-point shooters got to the line as often on attempts either.

Curry, who attempted 33 more triples during the regular season, got fouled on threes only 18 times. Lillard got to the line 26 times on three-point attempts, and Isaiah Thomas got there 23 times.

The player who does it second-most to Harden? His teammate, Lou Williams:

James Harden: 122 + 2 = 124
Lou Williams: 49 + 6 = 55
Kyle Lowry: 23+ 9 = 32
Damian Lillard: 26 + 4 = 30
Kemba Walker: 19 + 6 = 25
Stephen Curry: 18 + 5 = 23
Isaiah Thomas: 23
Eric Bledsoe: 23
J.J. Redick: 18
Jimmy Butler: 9
Eric Gordon: 6
Bradley Beal: 5
Klay Thompson: 4
C.J. McCollum: 4

In a FiveThirtyEight report written by Chris Herring, data from BigDataBall as of March 21 showed Harden had attempted more foul shots on three-pointers than any other NBA team. He had 108 free-throw attempts on triples at that point. The Lakers, thanks to Williams, were the closest team at 73 attempts

The league has to do something about this

This is not a foul. This is not a foul. This is not a foul.

That sentence can be repeated for the entirety of this portion of the story. Mills had his hands straight up as he went over the screen, and it was Harden who initiated the contact. It’s not the referees fault.

There’s no instant replay in live action, and these are bang-bang calls that often times could go either way. Superstars tend to get the benefit of the whistle — that’s never changed. But arguably, no superstar has been as deceptive as Harden when it comes to getting to the foul line.

The over-the-screen foul is a tough one to call. Often, shooters get their best look at the rim coming off a screen with the roll man’s defender sagging off. And in the event the foul is obvious, officials are right to blow their whistle.

But part of playing basketball has always been getting that whistle to go your way. It’s why Vlade Divac began the flopping trend decades ago: A little edge is better than none. Harden’s tactic of deceiving referees on these three-point shots isn’t just blatant deceit. It’s potentially dangerous to the game.

It slows down the game, sending a player to the foul line who, quite frankly, doesn’t deserve to be there. And it’s a debilitating blow to the defender, who is merely trying to keep up with the league’s premier shooting guard.

Harden is already a handful to deal with. At his size with his sleight of hand, it’s already near-impossible to check him. He’s crafty with how he draws fouls in the paint, and he finishes at the rim with the league’s best.

There’s no need to fleece the referees out of their whistles by initiating the contact on over-the-screen situations. And if the NBA allows it to continue, there’s no telling how many players will pick up on Harden’s trend.