James Harden's foul-drawing mastery is unstoppable

"Hands up! Hands up!" A voice hollers from the Detroit Pistons' bench as James Harden dribbles the ball about 30 feet from the basket, reminding Glenn Robinson III not to reach against the Houston Rockets' superstar.

It's Nov. 23, and the Rockets -- now in Detroit for the second game of a home-and-home set -- trail by four points late in the first quarter. As Robinson closes in, Harden -- who had gone 19-of-19 from the free throw line in the Rockets' home win over the Pistons two days prior -- casually takes a couple more dribbles before recognizing an opportunity he has seen hundreds of times.

"Hands up!" the voice hollers again, now several decibels louder, sounding as alarmed as a father seeing his child reaching for a hot stove.

It's too late. The moment Robinson extends his right arm to put his hand above the ball, Harden picks up his dribble and flings his arms before releasing a shot, drawing contact and getting the whistle.

"He flops on offense just like I flop on defense."
Celtics guard Marcus Smart, on James Harden

It's ruled a rip move, so Harden isn't awarded his first free throws of the game. Those would come just five seconds later, when Harden catches Reggie Bullock colliding with his leg while challenging a step-back 3-pointer right in front of the Rockets' bench.

"He kicked his leg out! He kicked his leg out! He kicked his leg out!" Pistons coach Dwane Casey protests as Bullock pleads his case to the ref. "C'mon, man! He kicked his leg out!"

The Pistons have just fallen victim to one of Harden's not-so-secret weapons -- a repertoire of foul-drawing moves designed to drive defenders crazy and get the reigning MVP to the line at a historic clip.

Nobody in the NBA has mastered this art as well as Harden, who has led the league in free throws attempted in five of the past six seasons, averaging more than 10 per game. He has a deep bag of tricks to earn opportunities at the most efficient shot in the game -- Harden hits free throws at an 85.3 percent clip for his career -- but he isn't exactly eager to publicly discuss his tactics.

"I just play. Fouls come," Harden says, keeping a straight face. "I don't really come into the game trying to draw fouls. I just play the game."

Don't buy that? Neither do the guys who have the frustrating experience of checking him.

'The problem is, how do you guard him then?'

If anyone knows how to sell a foul, it's Marcus Smart. And while the Boston Celtics' guard does most of his Oscar-worthy work on defense, Harden's offensive tactics just might give him a run for his money.

"He flops on offense just like I flop on defense," Smart says. "He's been in the league a long time, and he's built that reputation. It's hard to guard him knowing that, at any given moment, you can get called for a foul.

"He does a really good job of using his body and using the rules to his advantage."

Smart isn't alone in his frustration. Defenders all around the league are suffering at the hands -- and arms and legs -- of the NBA's foul-drawing master.

"It's just years of experience," says Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris. "And learning how to -- how do I put this delicately -- how to create certain things in the refs' eyes to make them want to call fouls."

Steve Javie, an officiating analyst for ESPN with 25 seasons of NBA refereeing experience, disagrees that deception is a major factor in Harden living at the line.

"He's really a unique player where he doesn't really try to fool the referee actually," Javie says. "Nine times out of 10 when you look at replays, you go, 'Yeah, that's a defensive foul.'

"The guy is really, really a smart guy. He's really clever. You can tell he practices at knowing what the defense is allowed to do and not allowed to do and where his defender is, because he seems to get the defender in a compromising position."

It's without a doubt a craft Harden has worked hard to hone. He even hunts fouls when he plays one-on-one with Rockets staffers.

"He can feel it, he can see it," Javie says. "For some reason, the guy's just got a knack for it."

"It's like he's got the plague, and you don't want to touch him. That's how we've got to treat him."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on James Harden's foul-drawing prowess

Harden, who is averaging a career-high and NBA-best 31.1 points per game, has established himself as the league's premier scorer for many reasons. He's dominant as a driver, an elite ballhandler and a crafty finisher. His step-back 3 has become his signature move. But the first thing opponents discuss when preparing for Harden is keeping him off the free throw line.

"Anytime you scout James Harden -- as well as Lou Williams -- the whole talk is about showing your hands," says Grizzlies shooting guard Garrett Temple. "Almost putting your hands back. Then the problem is, how do you guard him then?"

Great question. Here's how Harden is making it so difficult for defenders to find the answer.

'It's like if a cookie's sitting right there'

If you're going to dissect any of Harden's go-to moves, start with the one we've all seen a million times.

Harden loves to use the basketball as bait, extending his arms after picking up his dribble on drives and daring opponents to take a swipe.

"He just has a way of throwing the ball out there, making guys think they can go get it," says Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Paul George.

"It's like if a cookie's sitting right there, you want to go get it, but you're not going to get it every time," Temple says. "It's like the commercial with the guy with the fishing rod -- you're not quick enough to get the dollar at the end."

Opponents are well aware of this, but it's often too tempting to resist going for the steal, no matter how many times they see Harden get the and-1 against reaching defenders.

"He's got great balance, and he has strong hands and forearms, so he has the ability to put the ball in a place that other people would fear because they think they're going to lose the ball," a Western Conference head coach says. "If you get the ball, he's strong enough to hold onto it and still finish. But if you take the bait and you miss, which happens most of the time, you're going to foul him.

"He starts it here [close to his chest], so then your reach starts to happen, and as your reach is happening, then it's extended. And now it's an easy call."

'He knows how to clamp that arm'

Harden stood at the free throw line, and George couldn't understand why.

The two stars were dueling in Houston last April, and Harden had just wrapped his right arm around George, initiating contact while simultaneously taking him for a ride toward the rim. A quick defensive foul was called, much to the outrage of George and his Thunder teammates.

Fast-forward seven months to the first quarter of a Nov. 8 game in Oklahoma City, and Harden is setting up George one more time.

As Harden makes a spin move, he subtly uses his right arm again as a hook, pulling George toward him to draw contact. Referee Scott Wall's whistle blows as George gets ready to plead his case.

Offensive foul.

"I was very surprised that they blew that on him and gave him the foul," George says. "That's part of the reason he gets those fouls, he knows how to clamp that arm in there, and he goes up as if he's shooting to draw that contact."

This is arguably Harden's most frustrating trick for defenders and referees alike -- clearly an offensive foul, but one rarely called on him.

"That's so difficult [for a referee]," Javie says. "It's probably just watching a lot of tape and making sure you have the angle to see it. Eight or nine times out of 10, it is a defensive foul. That one or two times out of 10 that it's not. You've got to be in a perfect position."

According to Javie, referees shouldn't think twice about sending a quick message.

"If I knew the guy tried to fool me before," Javie says, "I'd probably call an offensive foul, just to say, 'I think I know what you're doing.'"

Harden actually uses a couple of different versions of the off-arm hook. He's also known for using his off hand to slyly get under a defender's arm and flail, which almost always catches defenders off-guard and fools refs into calling a foul in Harden's favor.

"You shouldn't have to worry about guys grabbing your arm on defense and getting a foul call," Raptors shooting guard Danny Green says. "It happens all the time. It happens all the time."

'That's the reason he shoots 10-plus free throws a night'

Harden readily admits that he thrives on contact.

"Yeah, but it's tough," Harden says. "I can't be too aggressive, because then you knock guys over and get offensive fouls. You've got to pick your spots."

Defenders credit Harden for being a master at creating advantageous angles. They say it helps that he's a lefty with a bit of an unorthodox game, but he excels at creating contact and getting calls.

"He does a really good job of playing strong with his body, which a lot of times he hits you, and your natural reaction is to hit back, and guys get dinged for that," George says. "So, he's just good, he's figured it out, how to master it, how to work the officials, and that's the reason he shoots 10-plus free throws a night."

Harden refers to it as "taking up their space." As the Western Conference head coach explains, Harden excels at forcing a defender to react and then determining whether he has an advantage of a full step or a half step.

"If you're a full step late, then he's got a clear path," the coach says. "But if you're a half step, he creates that separation and then puts his body on you and draws the foul."

It's something Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum got a front-row seat to during last season's playoffs.

Harden and San Antonio Spurs shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, childhood friends who grew up playing basketball together in Los Angeles, have had discussions about the art of drawing fouls. DeRozan admits he has borrowed some tricks from his former AAU teammate, such as extending his arms on drives.

"That was something we always talked about, joked about," DeRozan says. "Especially in the summertime, just messing around playing and coming up with different ideas on how to get fouled and get to the free throw line."

DeRozan compares Harden to another crafty lefty, recently retired Spurs legend Manu Ginobili. While Ginobili earned a reputation as a renowned flopper, he had a knack for creating contact after getting into the paint by changing directions, as does Harden.

"And you can see it, especially in transition," DeRozan says. "He's looking for the foul. He's not going to shy away from it. So for him, it's just being conscious that there's not too many people that can body him. So if he's coming straight at you, he's definitely going to draw the foul."

'Boom, he'll hit you, and then there's space'

There is one move, though, that transcends them all. One that every NBA player knows about but can't stop. One that utilizes the same tricks he uses in the paint but which creates 50 percent more production than any other move. One that Harden executes better than any player in history. The patented step-back 3.

"Boom, he'll hit you, and then there's space," Harris says. "And then as you jump forward, he's jumping forward.

"He has a knack for creating space and then taking advantage of mistakes."

Harden has been fouled on 289 3-point attempts over the past five seasons, according to Second Spectrum data, more than any other two players combined.

One of Harden's tricks? Moving diagonally on his way backward. Watch any Rockets game, any you'll see it: Harden darting in reverse at any angle, knowing his defenders will follow -- and knowing collisions will come.

And they do. Per Second Spectrum, Harden has 37 four-point plays in the past five seasons, again, by far the most in the league.

"Most guys can't block it, and they want to take up that space," Harden says. "I don't look for a foul as I'm shooting my step-back. I actually shoot the ball to make it."

'It's like he's got the plague'

The Spurs had already been bitten. In the 2017 Western Conference playoffs, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley had tormented San Antonio and head coach Gregg Popovich with his ability to draw fouls on 3-pointers. The Spurs had managed to take down Memphis in six games, despite Conley drawing five fouls on 3s.

But they'd advanced to the West semifinals knowing Conley was a mere understudy to the foul-drawing star awaiting them.

So the Spurs turned to a radical approach: They would guard Harden with their hands up, fingertips pointed toward the sky.

"That was the whole reason," Popovich says. "That's how we guarded James because he was getting all those calls, and the referees hadn't figured it out yet. So we came up with that just for him. And it worked out well."

Harden averaged 29.1 points and made it to the free-throw line nearly 10.9 per game during the 2016-17 regular season. But in the conference semifinals, the Spurs cut Harden's scoring average to 24.5 points while limiting him to an average of six trips to the line in a series San Antonio won in six games.

"After that series [against Memphis], we ended up playing Houston and saying, 'Keep your hands out,'" Green says. "'We don't want anymore fouls guarding these guys.'"

In that sense, the Spurs saw the 2017 series against Harden and the Rockets as a precursor to today's freedom-of-movement rules, which teams are still struggling to adjust to.

"[Harden] can take advantage of that sort of thing," Popovich says. "If your hands are anywhere in the vicinity, he's going to figure out a way how to get mucked up with you so that he can get off a shot or get the foul somehow."

Popovich then starts to laugh.

"It's like he's got the plague," Popovich says, "and you don't want to touch him. That's how we've got to treat him."

ESPN's Royce Young and Tim Bontemps contributed to this story.