A funny thing happened to James Harden on the way to the free-throw line. The Houston Rocket stopped getting there and started proving he can still be dangerous in the playoffs.
In spite of having the best season of his career, and being a top contender for the league’s MVP, he’s faced what can generously be called questions and more honestly described as criticisms regarding his ability to transfer that success into the playoffs.
Harden has quietly been answering both of those.
Can He Succeed in the Playoffs?
Sean Pendergast of the Houston Press put it this way:
However, equally undeniable is the delta the last few years between Regular Season Harden and Playoff Harden. Last season, his effective field goal percentage was 52.9 during the regular season and plummeted to 43.6 percent during the six game loss to the Blazers. His career playoff eFG% is nearly three points less than is regular season eFG%. Regular Season Harden and Playoff Harden need to become identical twins this postseason if the Rockets are to do anything.
This illustrates the first of two criticisms Harden faces—that he disappoints in the postseason. However, that’s a bit simplistic. Harden is barely 25 and has steadily improved in the playoffs as he’s matured. Below is his Game Score, game by game, throughout his postseason career, per data provided by Basketball-Reference.com.
Game Score is a metric devised by John Hollinger which is a kind of "single game" version of Player Efficiency Rating. As you can see, he’s steadily improved in the playoffs.
Like most players, there's some up and downs from game to game, but the general trajectory has been upwards over the course of his career.
Considering that he’s transitioned so much through his career, it’s impressive. He’s gone from a sixth-man role while he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, to “first option” his first two years in Houston, to MVP candidate and team leader now.
And here is how his average Game Score in the playoffs compares to what he’s done in the regular season. While it’s true his first two years in Houston there was a slight dip, it wasn’t nearly so egregious when you consider his youth and the uptick in competition.
And this year, he’s actually doing even better in the playoffs than he did in his best regular season.
Can He Succeed Without Getting to the Line?
In today’s world of social media, it’s hardly just on the press to set up narratives and storylines. Twitter is full of opinions about Harden. The general argument against him is that he gets to the line by flopping and if you take that away from him, he can’t score.
Then the playoffs started and Harden performed as “expected.” The first two games saw lots of missed shots and made freebies, and Twitter was there to mock. BALL UP NBA was quick to Tweet:
And that’s when Harden put the brakes on all of that. Over the last three games, he has been ridiculous, averaging 31.3 points, shooting 53.4 percent from the field 45.5 percent from three and 100 percent from the charity stripe.
In the first two games, he went to the stripe 30 times. In the last three, he only visited it 22 times. But here’s the somewhat subtle and understated thing that happens when players are getting fouled and going to the line.
All those times a player gets fouled, it’s happening for a reason. A defender is trying to take away the easy shot from him. So they foul him either to make him, “earn” it at the stripe or because they can’t help it. Regardless, the foul prevents what would have often been a made shot.
All the complaints about head-snapping and arm-flailing don’t change the fact that if Harden isn’t fouled, he’s getting to the rim.
In some ways, it’s meaningless. Effectively, that field goal becomes two free throws. It only makes a difference on the stat sheet. The points count the same. Well, that, and a defender has one fewer foul left they can commit.
However, those made-shots-become-made-free-throws add up in the box score. An extra four trips to the line can mean going 4-of-10 from the field (40 percent shooting) instead of going 8-of-14 (57 percent shooting).
It’s important to realize this because sometimes we treat that field-goal percentage as a constant. We falsely assume that if a player didn’t get to the stripe, he would have maintained the same field-goal percentage had those possessions been field-goal attempts. This gets framed as needing free throws to score. Such is the argument from Sporting News’ Scott Rafferty:
Drawing fouls at the rate Harden does is a skill and nobody in the NBA does it better than the Rockets' bearded wonder. However, the downside of drawing fouls to gain an edge is it forces players to rely on external factors: the opposition and referees. Under the microscope of the playoffs, where the game slows down and the stingiest of defenses tighten up even more, there will be more focus than ever on keeping Harden off the foul line.
The supposition is that Harden “relies on” the external factors. He doesn’t. Actually he’s maximizing on his ability to get into the paint and either make the shot or get fouled doing so. Just because that often happens to be the latter doesn't mean it has to be.
Over the last three games, Harden has been getting to the line less with a fascinating byproduct: His made field goals are going up alongside that. If anything, the reduction in free throws is more than being made up for with a corresponding increase from the field:
In fact, Harden is drawing roughly four fewer fouls and making about five more shots with almost four of those coming inside. So, yes, he can score without getting to the line. Perhaps he can even score better.
And the rest of his game has been splendid as well. Harden is averaging 28.4 points on 65.2 percent true shooting and 7.8 assists. The complete list of players to do that in a postseason is Harden and no one. If that doesn’t satisfy the doubters, then nothing will.
Particularly during the first two games, when the Mavericks were focusing on stopping Harden, he averaged just 24 points, but he averaged 8.5 assists, finding his teammates with open shots. This is what you want your team leader to do in the postseason.
On the other hand, Harden's defense was improved this season, but opponents shot 5.6 percent better against him during the Dallas series. And that could be even more problematic against the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers in the second round. As a leader, he needs to maintain his two-way play.
Of course, this was just one series. But that was the case against the Portland Trail Blazers last year, and that was the basis of so much of the criticism. So, Gander, meet Goose.
The truth is Harden hasn’t been perfect in the playoffs, but he hasn’t been any different than any other superstar learning the ropes. He emerged as a bona fide MVP-caliber player this regular season, and he is manifesting himself as the type of player who can carry his team to the Finals this postseason.