“You know what? I don’t look to get fouled, as people might think I do,” Harden said, darting his eyes left and right to caricature the notion. “I’m not like: ‘Where’s the foul? Where’s the foul?’ as I’m driving.”
His only aim is to score the basket, Harden said, and if any defenders want to swipe at the ball to stop him, they can. But, he added, when he makes a move to the basket, he drives hard, and fouls are sometimes a byproduct.
Still, he was asked, what about the way he flattens out his arms to make them susceptible to being smacked, or how he changes pace on his dribble at counterintuitive times to create collisions, or his tendency to cling to defenders’ bodies even when freer paths to the rim seem to exist?
Harden smiled. “That’s just being crafty,” he said.
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A crucial factor in Harden’s remarkable season has been his production at the free-throw line, where his shooting percentage is .866. Through Monday — when Houston beat Charlotte, 100-90, and Harden scored 29 points while making 14 of 16 foul shots — Harden has registered a league-high 816 free throws and has made 707. Second, far behind, was Westbrook, who had taken 629 through Sunday and made 525. Through 81 games — only one of which he had missed — Harden was averaging 10.2 free-throw attempts, with 8.8 of them successful. Both figures were also league highs.
He is just the 11th player in N.B.A. history to sink more than 700 free throws in a season.
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“Getting fouled is definitely an art, and he’s very good at it,” Rockets Coach Kevin McHale said, adding that Harden’s body awareness allowed him to initiate contact that works in his favor.
“You either know how to draw fouls or don’t, and I’m not sure you can teach it,” McHale added. “It may be innate.”
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Steve Javie, a former N.B.A. referee who analyzes officiating for ESPN, explained that Harden had an uncanny knack for sensing when a defender had entered into an illegal guarding position and initiating contact at that very moment, creating a defensive foul that might not have materialized otherwise.
How does he do it, then? To start, Harden’s tactics would not work if he did not already possess a devastatingly varied offensive skill set. For casual viewers, he may not inspire the same delight as Curry, who fires shots from absurd ranges and swaggers back down the court before they land, like an action-movie star strolling away from an explosion. But Harden’s intelligence and technical sophistication have won him widespread admiration.
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“It’s difficult to ever figure out what he’s going to do because he scores in such a variety of ways,” said Terry Stotts, the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, who knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs last season.
Harden’s array of weapons instills in defenders high levels of respect, fear and uncertainty and a basic desire to stop whatever Harden might be doing at a given moment. In turn, he plays off these impulses. It helps that he has strong hands and an equally strong grasp of league rules.
Harden’s most idiosyncratic maneuver involves holding the ball away from his body, like a waiter balancing a tray of tempting hors d’oeuvres — or as Harden refers to it, “the cookie jar.”
“Just when you think you can reach and get a steal, he takes his arm up into your arms, and that’s an automatic foul,” said Markel Brown of the Nets, who helped hold Harden to 15 points in a Feb. 27 game. “You’re fouling him, but he pretty much made you foul him.”
Such a loss of self-determination is common among those who guard Harden. He isolates defenders, stares them down, flinches, twitches, and moves his eyeballs. If the opponent loses his equilibrium, Harden accelerates, clipping a piece of hip or shoulder or leg on the way.
“He’ll lull you to sleep,” said Cory Joseph of the Spurs. “He gets you on your heels, almost moves you where he wants you, and then he works his angles to get contact and a foul call and also get his shot off.”
Thus Harden punishes defenders for even a split second of laziness. “As a defender, you better be doing everything right,” Harden said. “I’m talking about hands out of the cookie jar, sliding your feet, straight up.”