OAKLAND -- Two hours before Sunday's 104-100 Game 1 win over Houston, Warriors assistant Chris DeMarco gathered any Golden State player within an earshot and put out a simpled directive: keep The Beard off the line.
For nearly every NBA team, Harden brings the same conundrum: A burly superstar guard who can seemingly get to the free throw line whenever he wants. In Game 1, he did just that, finishing with 14 attempts at the line, keeping the Rockets within distance for much of the afternoon.
Golden State knows Harden's tactics well, having played him three of the last four postseasons. As the series goes on, the Warriors will try to defend Harden and friends without putting them on the line.
For much of the night, the Warriors kept Houston's offense in check, holding the Rockets to just 41.9 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from 3-point range. Harden, who finished with 29 points, made just nine of his 28 shots as he fought through a myriad of Golden State defenders, taking his usual journey to the line.
Thirty-six hours earlier, the Warriors dispatched the Clippers, led by Lou Williams, who possess Harden's knack for getting his opponent in foul trouble. Over the six-game series, Williams finished with 41 free throw attempts. Following Sunday's win, after the Harden took half of his team's free throw attempts - the general consensus among Warriors players was this stark difference between the two players. Williams looks to score, Harden looks for contact.
With 2:28 left in the third quarter, Harden drove to the basket on Kevon Looney and seemingly grabbed Looney's arm in a way that cast the Warriors forward as the culprit for a call -- much to the Warriors chagrin.
"I mean I didn't think it was a foul," Looney said. "I was a little late on the coverage, I should have been up higher but I know when you reach at all its a foul. I learned that the hard way last year and the rules still apply, so I won't do it next time."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr had advice for his players.
"You have to be very disciplined," Kerr added. "He's so clever, creating fouls, creating contact. And you have to be able to play without putting your hand in the cookie jar."
Looney watched tape of his defensive assignments against Harden following last year's Western Conference Finals. As the clips played, Looney began to notice Harden's tendency to jump into the defender when he went up for a jump shot. Since watching the tape, Looney began to jump to the side of Harden when contesting his jumpers. Like Looney, players have developed a strategy to guard the reigning MVP. Kevin Durant prefers to use to his 7-foot-5 wingspan, holding one arm high above Harden's head to deter his vision of the rim.
Klay Thompson's approach to guarding Harden left both the Rockets and the guard curious. In three separate instances, Thompson seemed to undercut Harden's landing area. Following the game, Harden looked for some level of retribution while the Warriors contended that Harden was up to his old tricks of kicking out his legs.
"What can I do about that?" Harden asked. "I mean, I just want a fair chance, man. Call the game how it's supposed to be called and that's it. And I'll live with the results."
Warriors forward Draymond Green didn’t want to hear it.
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"Huh?" Green added, looking perturbed. "I've been fouled by James on a James 3-pointer before. No, I ain't going with that one. I'm straight. No."
As the series goes on, the Warriors will continue to strive towards the goal DeMarco set just before the series, even if it's easier said than done.