Only two-plus weeks ago, Stephen Curry coaxed Montrezl Harrell into the air on a mean pump-fake with the Golden State Warriors down by two in Game 2 of their Western Conference first-round series against the LA Clippers. For a fleeting moment, Curry, a 90 percent career free throw shooter, had an easy path to three free throws: leap into Harrell, airborne and helpless, for a shooting foul.
Curry demurred. He let Harrell fly by, pivoted to his left, and launched an open 3-pointer to give Golden State the lead. He missed. The Warriors lost.
Curry drew some criticism, including across ESPN television the next day, for not flinging his body into Harrell. A lot of those same people might also lament James Harden's occasional abandonment of normal basketball movement patterns in an effort to create contact -- including the jackknifing of his legs on step-back 3-pointers that have thrust "landing space" into the NBA vernacular and spawned a public officiating controversy. Those two acts -- a shooter in Curry's position leaping sideways into an airborne defender, Harden extending his legs -- aren't quite the same thing, but they are cousins.
It would have been interesting to have a candid discussion with Golden State's coaches after that Clippers game about Curry's decision. On some level, they probably wished he had taken the free throws.
For years, Golden State's coaches have tried to convince Curry and Klay Thompson to leverage the fear of their shooting ability -- and the connected power of their pump-fakes -- into easy points. Steve Kerr once froze the video during a film session to highlight a moment when Curry might have been able to draw contact using a pump-fake, Bruce Fraser, a Warriors assistant coach, told ESPN last season. "Teams run at [Curry] like they are scared to death of his shooting," Fraser said then.
Kerr even cued up tape of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, master of many fakes, including an extended two-arms-over-head pump-fake that looks almost like a faster version of Chandler Parsons' exaggerated pump-fake today. (Perhaps Kerr has personal memories of Abdul-Rauf lighting up the Bulls for 32 points in a February 1996 Nuggets-Bulls game -- one of only 10 Chicago losses that season.)
Here's Nick Young executing it as the Warriors' bench, knowing the Abdul-Rauf history, goes bananas:
Even if Curry evaded contact, he could still pump-and-drive his way into the paint.
"Everyone is so afraid of him, I'm always trying to get him to pump-fake more," Kerr told ESPN in late 2017. Curry leaned into it for a bit:
Thompson could never bring himself to seek out collisions, Golden State coaches and executives say. He viewed it as gimmicky. Thompson had confidence in his shot. He didn't need free throws.
The Houston Rockets would probably nudge him harder. Part of what makes Golden State-Houston such an irresistible rivalry is that the teams stand as ideological opposites within the deepest recesses of their basketball souls. Those philosophical differences are informing the ongoing officiating debate, which will fade -- along with this series -- if Houston does not win both Games 3 and 4 at home.
And it's not a good-versus-evil dichotomy either, though some will frame it that way. It's more old-school versus so-new-school-we-don't-know-quite-what-to-do-with-it. The Warriors are basketball purists almost at their own expense. Curry did not leap into Harrell, after all. Their motto is "strength in numbers." Even in some huge playoff games, Kerr stretches the rotation to its breaking point. He prefers an equal-ish opportunity offense in which everyone screens, cuts, passes and touches the ball.
"Kerrism," as Ethan Strauss has dubbed it at The Athletic, has practical strategic aims. It is not just basketball religion. An extended rotation keeps players fresh. Touching the ball on offense pushes everyone to play harder defense. Moving the ball from side to side forces every opposing defender to expend energy.
And yet: Sometimes it feels a little like dogma. Anderson Varejao plays in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals (never mind that he helped swing Game 7 of the conference finals). The Warriors open the second quarter of a big game with both Curry and Kevin Durant on the bench. Golden State refuses to just give the ball to Curry and Durant, or run endless pick-and-rolls between them, until they reach a crisis moment. Warriors Twitter cracks about "Kumbaya Kerr."
Even as Curry and Thompson revolutionized the entire idea of 3-point shooting, Kerr's Warriors held true to a style in keeping with how basketball has always looked.
The Rockets do not care how anything looks. They care about math. The math says Harden isolating is the most efficient thing they can do, so they do that over and over. The math says Harden isolating into a step-back 3-pointer is the most efficient version of that, so Harden now takes and makes more step-back 3s than anyone attempted in normal 3s until Curry.
They are also at a talent deficit against perhaps the greatest collection of prime star talent ever assembled. They are seeking any edge, and there just aren't many edges beyond Harden creating points in any way possible.
Harden and those "landing space" 3s are at the crux of what Houston alleges as officiating bias against them in head-to-head games against Golden State. As Rachel Nichols and I reported Monday, the Rockets have done extensive math and concluded that incorrect calls and non-calls cost them 18 points last year in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
The NBA told ESPN it disputes Houston's methodology. It is right to do so. It's quite Houston-friendly.
The league would not comment further, and it has not yet publicly disputed that total missed calls and non-calls in this matchup have favored Golden State over the past two postseasons.
Sources say such a discrepancy exists. While there have been missed calls going both ways, the discrepancy has amounted to approximately three additional, definitive missed calls per game that have disadvantaged the Rockets, according to those sources. That does not include gray area uncalled "potential infractions" the NBA flags upon enhanced review and deems inconclusive.
(The NBA declined to share any such data, as it is confidential. Also: Such a discrepancy would inevitably exist, to some degree, in any head-to-head series between any two teams -- and could flip in the other direction at any time, given the small sample sizes.)
Here's a thing the NBA has found after years of parsing data about officiating: Even though they earn heaps of free throws, most ball-dominant superstars do not get close to every call they deserve under the letter of the law. Most have a sizable ratio between incorrect non-calls -- those they deserve but don't get -- and undeserved fouls drawn. (Cut to Shaq nodding.)
That is inherent to being a ball-dominant superstar. Some beloved teams -- Pat Riley's Heat, Jerry Sloan's Jazz -- famously defended with nonstop handsy physicality because they knew referees simply could not call every foul. If they did, games would last four hours. Ball-dominant superstars suffer from something like the corollary of that.
A few seasons ago, Harden's foul ratio was likely typical of a ball-dominant superstar -- or something in the upper bound. That ratio likely increased as Harden pushed the boundaries of individual usage and embraced the step-back 3 at such high volumes.
For better or worse, Golden State's egalitarian style mitigates this sort of extreme foul ratio issue with Durant and Curry. (For the record, Kerr has coached with more urgency in these playoffs. He started the Death Lineup from the jump against Houston, and has been more willing to let Curry and especially Durant cook.) Kerr is of course correct that referees miss calls on both in every game, especially on drives. It's just that neither has the ball as much as Harden.
If the Rockets are victims, they are at least somewhat victims of their own math-based modernity -- of their unique dependence on Harden, and his step-back 3.
By the way: Credit Harden for accepting that burden, even if he enjoys it. It is taxing. He is bigger and stronger than Curry, and stouter than Durant. He can absorb more blows.
The refs can't call everything. Some of the calls they miss against Harden -- including a couple in Game 1 of this series -- rob Houston of these newfangled three-shot fouls. A three-shot foul is more profitable than almost any other outcome of an offensive possession. As ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry put it on a podcast this week, a three-shot foul on Harden produces more points on average than an uncontested Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk.
Those potential fouls, at least the way Harden produces them, are more or less brand new to basketball. What even is a "landing space"? How far does it extend? How far can Harden jump forward? How far does any human need to jump forward -- to use his legs for extra power -- on step-back triples almost no one was even taking five years ago? How far forward does Harden's defender get to jump? One Western Conference team instructed its players not to jump forward at all against Harden's step-back, per sources with that team -- to stand still and raise their arms up.
Jay Williams on ESPN's Get Up! this week literally laid two strips of masking tape on the floor and hopped between them, like an overgrown bunny, to illustrate what was and was not an appropriate leap forward on jumpers.
If we are reduced to that sort of granular analysis -- in slow motion, in pristine studio environments -- what are referees supposed to do during live games?
Some calls are obvious. Thompson violently invaded Harden's landing space on two shots when Harden did not move forward much -- bad missed calls. Harden's leg kick in the direction of Draymond Green on his game-tying attempt in the final seconds of Game 1 was blatant and unnatural ref-bait.
The Warriors bend the rules, too. They just do it in ways that everyone has agreed upon as semi-acceptable parts of basketball culture. They sometimes set moving screens to free shooters. They grab and hold on defense when they can get away with it. And boy howdy, do they complain to referees.
The ways that Houston bends the rules are new and unfamiliar. The Rockets have argued the league's most experienced officials, the ones who comprise most playoff crews, are least likely to award Harden three-shot fouls. Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports wrote Tuesday that Harden has earned fewer three-shot fouls per game in the playoffs than in the regular season.
Had Curry thrown himself sideways into Harrell, some commentators would have surely argued that he had earned that bit of contrivance with a real basketball play -- a pump-fake. Illegal screens -- a tactic every team uses, but one which the Warriors perhaps use more effectively and to aid much better shooters -- are seen as cooperative acts. They are one teammate helping another. We lionize physical defense.
The league is still grappling with whatever it is Harden is doing on these step-back 3s, let alone the jagged intricacies of his driving game. In contrasting the "pump-and-jump into a defender" play -- the one Curry did not make against Harrell -- with Harden's "landing space" attempts, several coaches and executives offered this distinction: Curry is tricking the opponent; Harden is tricking the referees. One is closer to real basketball.
Those two acts are different. Again: They are cousins, not immediate family. But illegal screens and under-the-radar grabbing and holding could be framed as tricking referees, too.
All of the Rockets' complaints really come down to Harden. They surely know he will get little sympathy. He has led the league in free throw attempts in six of the past seven seasons. He drives and winds up to shoot 3s in some instances more to draw contact than to try to direct the ball into the basket. He has a history of flopping.
The Rockets also missed 27 straight 3s with a chance to make the NBA Finals. Their lack of diversity in style hurt them in that game, hurt them in prior postseasons, and may be hurting them in some vague overarching mathematical way with officials. They may have a right to complain, but they can also adapt.