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James Harden lives and dies by the whistle

James Harden's greatest strength can also work against him. Can the Rockets survive that in the playoffs?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden has had an extraordinary season, especially considering his co-star Dwight Howard has played just 32 out of 61 possible games. That void puts heavy pressure and attention on Harden, and for the most part The Bearded One has just pressed through it. He's in contention for the scoring title, likely to make first team All-NBA for the second straight year and he might even be the MVP favorite at this point. Harden's great.

But on Wednesday against the Grizzlies, Harden didn't get a superstar call. Driving the lane in crunch time, he was raked fairly obviously, but no whistles sounded.

He lost the ball, Memphis scored and the Rockets lost a tough game against a rival. Unfortunately for Houston, that might not be the last time that happens this season.

★★★

Harden lives by the whistle. He's No. 1 in the league in free throw attempts by a huge margin. (He's taken 34 percent more FTs than No. 2 LeBron James.) Among the league's top scorers, Harden gets a greater share of his points at the charity stripe -- 30.6 percent -- than anyone else, including DeMarcus Cousins (30 percent), Jimmy Butler (29.6 percent) and Russell Westbrook (28.5 percent). And clearly, his success in getting to line over the past three years has opened up space for him to fire away from long range and to set up teammates.

In one sense, this is marvelous and part of what makes Harden completely terrifying to opponents. Drawing a shooting foul is the single most efficient result, assuming you can hit free throws. Consider this: Harden shoots 87 percent on free throws. That means two-shot trip produce an average of 1.74 points. To get that sort of expected points per shot rate, you'd need to shoot 87 percent on two-pointers (impossible) or 58 percent on threes. Kyle Korver is having one of the greatest shooting seasons ever and is just below 50 percent from beyond the arc.

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.

The opponents want to avoid fouling Harden and will have plenty of time in a best-of-7 series to plan on how. The referees, of course, are another issue entirely, as they were for Houston on Wednesday. As Jason Concepcion smartly noted at Grantland this week, Houston saw its free throw rate plummet between the regular season and playoffs last year. This was likely a function of the opponent: Portland, one of the better NBA teams at avoiding fouls.

The good news for Harden is that it appears the Rockets will avoid the Blazers in the first round this season. The bad news is that (other than foul-happy Houston) only two likely West playoff teams foul at a rate higher than the average: Golden State and the Clippers. The Blazers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Thunder all foul at fairly low rates. Houston will likely face one or two of those teams within the first two rounds. There's a chance all three series in the West would come against low-foul teams, if Houston proceeds that far. And as it turns out, if the Rockets make the Finals, one of the teams that currently rank Nos. 1 and 3 in foul rate (Cleveland and Atlanta) are likely to be waiting.

That's one outside force that will change for the worse for Harden in the playoffs. The other -- officials -- are a concern all the time. After all, the low-foul Grizzlies did foul Harden on Wednesday night. No dice. Why? There's a common belief that referees are less likely to blow a whistle in an uncertain moment in the most critical moments of the game because referees not named Joey Crawford would prefer not to be responsible for the result of said critical moments. Referees are encouraged by our outrage-happy sports society to be mostly invisible and let the stars determine who wins and who loses. Blowing the whistle in a crucial moment is filled with peril. So understandably, many officials fail to do so reliably.

That meant trouble for Harden on Wednesday. And because they rely so heavily on the stripe, this is a bigger problem for Harden and Houston than any other team with O'Brien aspirations. Let's hope for the sake of fair basketball Wednesday's miscue doesn't repeat itself in the playoffs. But we'd be foolish not to anticipate it.