Harden's superpower is at the center of Rockets-Warriors

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NBC Sports

Harden's superpower is at the center of Rockets-Warriors

To see why refereeing has become such a hot topic in this Golden State-Houston series, you must first understand this: James Harden may be losing one of his superpowers.

Harden’s bread-and-butter is drawing a foul on 3-pointers, one of the most valuable plays in basketball for a variety of reasons. At a minimum, it pushes a defender closer to fouling out. Secondly, a close-out defender may not contest as aggressively later if a foul is called earlier in the game. But by far and away the most important thing -- particularly in the case of an 86-percent free-throw shooter like Harden -- is that one whistle can almost guarantee three points.

In the case of Sunday’s no-call on Draymond Green contesting Harden at the end of Game 1, which the league deemed to be the correct non-whistle, those three points would have been critical. It would have tied the game and potentially sent it into overtime. That call never came, and now the Rockets are down 0-1 in the series, with both teams airing out grievances in the press about the Harden issue.

This is the game within the game. If Harden can draw that whistle regularly in the series, it can change the entire landscape of the 2019 playoffs. The volume of complaints may only get louder.

The numbers

The reigning MVP has the fouled 3-pointer down to a science. With a devastating stepback that causes defenders to lunge toward him, Harden tallied a league-leading 95 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season (75 three-shot fouls and 20 and-ones on 3-pointers), or 1.22 per game. You might expect that Harden would get more of these calls in the postseason because teams are hell-bent on not letting him get a clean look and illegal contact will ensue. But in this postseason, he has gotten only six such calls in six games, a decline of 18 percent. In the postgame presser after Game 1, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said that referees confessed at halftime they missed four of them. That’s 12 free-throw attempts in the first-half alone.

It wasn’t just a Game 1 issue. In fact, in each of the last three postseasons, Harden hasn’t gotten the foul call on 3-pointers as much. Last year, Harden averaged 0.97 fouled 3-pointers in the regular season, and it dropped to 0.76 in the postseason, a drop of 22 percent. In 2016-17, it dropped from 1.53 to 1.18 per game, a decline of 23 percent.

You might say that’s not significant, but in the playoffs, one missed fouled 3-point call can change a game, or tilt a series. It can also drag down Harden’s 3-point shooting percentage, which is now sitting at 32.9 percent, marking the fourth-straight postseason he has shot below average from downtown.

There’s a fatigue element as well. Those falls are tiring. The more that Harden tumbles to the ground and scrambles to his feet, the less fuel he’ll have in the tank for critical late possessions. When he gets a call and a trio of free throws, those basketball burpees are worth it. When he doesn’t, he’s a liability on the floor, especially in transition with a Golden State team looking to push the ball.

For referees, this isn’t an easy call to make. But as one former NBA official tells NBCSports.com, this could get ugly soon.

One former referee’s viewpoint

Three-pointers are more prevalent than ever, and are being attempted deeper than ever. Pace has ramped up to levels unseen since the 1980s. Geometrically, referees have to keep track of a larger expanse of action than ever before. Not only that, the federal ban on sports gambling has been lifted, bringing referees and the integrity of the game further into the headlines.

Game 1 was particularly volatile. There were four technicals and an automatic ejection when Chris Paul bumped into official Josh Tiven in the closing seconds, receiving his second technical foul of the game. It was a contentious game that was marked by bizarre late whistles.

“This stuff is hard,” said the former NBA official. “What the referees have to do is hard. They’re under a lot of scrutiny, more so than ever before. Look, when I refereed, the second round of the playoffs didn’t get any attention. This year, the first round got attention.”

The concern isn’t just about fairness. With emotions running high and Harden emphasizing the integrity of the whistle, this could veer into dangerous territory.

“The problem you run into now: As soon as Steph (Curry) goes up (for a shot), they’ll step under him,” the longtime official said over the phone. “Somebody’s going to do it, just to prove a point.”

Which presents another problem.

“The referee is going to call (the foul), and the Rockets will say, ‘See, we’re getting screwed.’”

Making this even more complicated is that Curry and Klay Thompson are nursing sore ankles from their previous series against the L.A. Clippers. One turn of the ankle could be a series-ender. To be clear, there’s no indication from the Rockets that they will retaliate or start to play dirty to send a message. But there’s gamesmanship at play, too.

Like a savvy lawyer, Harden raised the precedent of Kawhi Leonard getting injured in the 2017 playoffs when former Golden State center Zaza Pachulia impeded on Leonard’s landing space and Leonard missed the rest of the series with an injured ankle.

“We all know what happened a few years back with Kawhi,” Harden said after Game 1. “That can change an entire series. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called, and we’ll live with the results.”

Sunday was a challenging afternoon for 16-year veteran official Zach Zarba, who, according to multiple sources and confirmed by RefAnalytics.com tracking, was making his conference semifinals debut as the crew chief. Zarba has officiated in the NBA Finals and has served as the crew chief in the first round, but Sunday’s highly-anticipated Game 1 of the Western Conference finals rematch was his first in the second round.

“These are huge games,” said the former NBA official, noting Zarba’s debut.

That’s notable for another reason. According to an ESPN report on Monday, the Rockets produced an audit of missed calls in the 2018 Western Conference Finals last year and claimed to the league that the officiating cost them the title (The NBA disagreed with the Rockets’ methodology.). In Houston’s estimation, one of the factors behind that perceived bias, is that veteran officials “exhibit the most bias against our players,” and Houston argued that referee experience level should not be considered for postseason assignments.

However, that these audits came to light after Game 1 is an interesting turn of events considering the relative inexperience of Sunday’s crew. Beyond Zarba, Tiven is in his ninth season as an NBA ref (sixth postseason) and Courtney Kirkland is in his 19th season, but just his ninth in the playoffs. If the Rockets were worried about too much experience clouding judgment, this would be an acceptable crew.

It’s not uncommon for referees to review calls at halftime and admit they missed one or two. But the former NBA official found it surprising that a referee would fess up to four mistaken calls on the same type of play, which is what D’Antoni asserted over the weekend. It’s not a matter of honesty -- it could be a matter of time. A referee crew only has about 10 minutes to debrief, review film and prep for the rest of the game during halftime. When asked about D’Antoni’s claim, a spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association declined comment on Tuesday.

“That is an issue because referees can’t go public,” the former NBA official said. “It’s not unusual to say, ‘Yeah, we looked at the play, and we kicked it.’ To say, ‘We looked at all four, and we missed them all’ -- that seems like a lot.”

In the age of analytics and greater transparency around officiating, referee assignments are sure to be talking points for the foreseeable future. For instance, the crew chief for Game 2 will not be making his debut like Zarba. Instead, it’ll be Scott Foster, who is one of the most senior officials on staff. Referee assignments for Games 1-4 are decided before the series, but the league placed Foster on this series, even though he carries a long history with the Rockets.

In February, both Harden and Chris Paul were tossed with six fouls each, prompting Harden to tell reporters, “For sure, it’s personal. I don’t think (Foster) should be able to officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It was the only time that Paul has fouled out in a game this season. In 2018, after Foster gave Paul a technical foul, the point guard told the media, “That’s history there. He the man. That’s who they pay to see.”

Paul isn’t alone in his issues with Foster. In 2016, Foster was voted the NBA’s worst referee in a Los Angeles Times survey of players and coaches. After Paul’s disqualification in February, Paul took umbrage with Foster again, telling reporters, “I don’t know what else to do.”

The Rockets, who are steeped in numbers as much as any team, are surely aware of this Foster-related fact: Harden has fouled out just four times in 265 games over the past three seasons including the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking. Three of those games were officiated by Foster.

Does Harden have a referee problem?

Harden is so talented that he doesn’t need a favorable whistle to play at a high level. But this postseason, he hasn’t lived at the free throw line like he normally does. He’s been held to five or fewer free throws in three of his six games, winning all three with a scoring average of 29 points in those contests.

Part of that is how Utah guarded him aggressively at his left hip early in the first round. With 14 free throws in Game 1, Harden will have to continue trying to live at the charity stripe in this series; the Warriors’ offense won’t be as forgiving as Utah’s if Harden is on the ground trying to get a call.

Whether he can continue getting the whistle, especially on three-shot fouls, is something to monitor in Game 2. Harden’s free-throw attempts per game has fallen in each of the last four postseasons. None of those has resulted in a finals appearance. Maybe the noise surrounding this series will change his fortune.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

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NBC Sports

NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

As the NBA finalizes its plans to restart in Orlando, it should pay close attention to what’s happening in Germany. 

On May 16, the Bundesliga became the first major soccer league to resume its season following the coronavirus shutdown and, to this point, the restart has gone off largely without a hitch. Unlike the NBA, where the focus has been resuming the season in a one-site campus, the Bundesliga is instead allowing teams to travel within German borders and play out its schedule in the teams’ respective home stadiums. What the two leagues have in common, however, is the absence of fans in attendance. 

And the results are fascinating.

Since the coronavirus shutdown, with no fans in attendance, home teams have won just 29.4 percent of their decided matches (not including those that ended in a draw). 

Before the coronavirus shutdown, with fans in attendance, home teams won 66.4 percent of their decided matches this season (not including those that ended in a draw).

That’s right. Home teams in Germany’s top soccer league have won just five of their 27 matches, with 10 matches ending in a draw and 12 outright defeats.

On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund faced off against Bayern Munich at Westfalenstadion. The monstrous stadium holds 81,365 people, making it Germany’s largest stadium and the seventh-largest in all of Europe. On Tuesday, the stands were empty. Borussia Dortmund lost 1-0.

So far, home-field advantage has been decimated, even when you account for team superiority. According to Bundesliga bet tracking, road favorites are 7-0-2 (win-loss-draw) since play resumed while home favorites are a measly 5-5-8, using gambling data. Without fans rooting them on, the home underdog has yet to punch above its weight and pull off an upset.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes, but one constant has emerged: no fans. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward, but it’s clear that fans will not be allowed to attend.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward.

There are many options on the table, including the traditional 16-team format divided into two conferences, a conference-free 1-thru-16 seeded tournament and an expansion involving 20, 24 or as many all 30 teams in some fashion. In conversations with several team execs, there’s an expectation that widening the playoff field would be partially motivated to include the starpower of Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently the West’s 10th seed, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, currently slotted 9th out West.

But when the NBA decides the playoff structure, it should seriously consider replenishing home-court advantage in some way.

In normal playoff circumstances, the higher-seeded team receives three perks: playing a worse (lower-seeded) team, playing on its home court first and enjoying Game 7 on the same home court. In a closed campus situation, the higher-seeded team won’t enjoy those last two perks, most notably that Game 7 factor. 

It’s been said that the two best words in all of sports is “Game 7,” but road teams aren’t trying to hear that. In 135 Game 7s in NBA playoff history, the home team has gone 106-29, for a win percentage of a whopping 78.5 percent. That’s a boost beyond the playoff norm; last postseason, the home team went 46-36, winning 56.1 percent of its games, a far cry from the observed Game 7 edge.

If teams convene in Orlando without fans in attendance, the higher-seeded team will lose one of its hard-earned benefits. That’s a problem.

Here’s a solution:

Reseed teams 1-through-16 (or 20 or 24) and let the higher-seeded teams (Nos. 1 through 8) choose their opponents in every round. 

The No. 1 seed would choose its opponent from a pool of the bottom half of the playoff field (eight teams in a 16-team playoff or 10 if the league decides to expand to 20 teams). The No. 2 seed would choose from the remaining teams and so on. You could broadcast the selections -- call it Selection Saturday if the NCAA doesn’t have rights to that as well -- in real-time, just like the NBA did for the All-Star draft.

“I absolutely love the idea,” said one Western Conference GM. “I love it now and I loved it then in the G League.”

For years, the NBA has long been intrigued by the choose-your-opponent idea. Beginning in the 2008-09 season, the G League (then called the NBA D-League) decided to spice things up for their eight-team playoff by letting the top three seeds choose their opponent from the bottom four seeds (the No. 4 team would face the lone remaining team). 

The experimental tweak actually stuck. For the next six postseasons, top seeds chose its first-round opponent based on matchups with unforeseen roster changes providing a key variable. In a minor-league system, NBA call-ups dramatically shifted the competitive landscape. A fifth-seeded team, for example, may have just lost its best player to the NBA, making it a more favorable draw than a fully-stacked eighth seed. 

Naysayers might argue that teams would be risk-averse cowards and wouldn’t choose anything but the lowest-seeded team possible. Why give any opponent even more bulletin board material? Why give them a chip on their shoulder?

Gamesmanship is part of the league’s DNA. This is a league that sees its playoff teams dress in funereal black for closeout games and taunt their Finals opponents for being sick. So it may not be a surprise that, more often than not, G League teams used their agency and picked a non-default opponent. 

Surprisingly, in six G League postseasons, the No. 1 seed didn’t choose the No. 8 seed four times, opting instead to play the No. 7 seed (three instances) and No. 6 seed (once). Among No. 1 seeds, picking a higher-seed backfired only once in 2012-13 when the No. 6 Austin Spurs swept the top-seeded Bakersfield Jam 2-0 in a three-game series. (The 2012-13 Spurs coach? Current Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins). 

Overall, among the 12 picks that weren’t the lowest-seed possible, only three backfired in upsets (25 percent upset rate). Of the six picks that chose the lowest-seed possible, two upsets occurred (33 percent upset rate). Choosing a higher-seeded opponent than the default option actually yielded fewer upsets. In other words, the chip-on-your-shoulder motivator actually didn’t result in more upsets.

The G League doesn’t operate this way anymore. Once the league moved into two conferences in 2014-15, they ditched the playoff format to more closely align the NBA’s two-conference playoff system. 

But it’s time to bring the idea back, in the big leagues. 

To be clear, this is not a shameless play for ratings and eyeballs. This is also a play for fairness. 

The league is sailing into uncharted waters here. The conditions in which teams played 65-ish games in the regular season will be vastly different than the environment in which they’re about to decide a champion. Several teams I’ve spoken to have mentally treated it as a separate season because the closed-campus circumstances promise to be so alien. 

The three-month shutdown will surely hit teams very differently. Will certain teams suffer unfortunate injuries in training camp or in the games leading up to the postseason? Will younger rosters be better off with fresher legs? Will veteran teams with playoff pedigree have an advantage? Will certain teams not have their head coach joining them in the playoffs because of coronavirus-related safety concerns? 

The coronavirus will have impacted teams in uneven ways. Will teams that were able to train in their practice facility early have an edge over teams that were forced to stay closed because of their market’s public health situation? Portland opened its complex on May 8, while Boston, Dallas and six other teams are still shut down as of May 28.

(Speaking of geographics, this shouldn’t be seen as a pandemic-only gimmick. If the league is worried about long-distance travel in strict 1-through-16 matchups down the line, letting travel-conscious teams pick opponents could naturally prune that problem away.) 

With so many uncertainties that will undoubtedly fog up the situation, the NBA should let top teams navigate the gray area on their own terms, just like the G League. At the very least, give them the choice -- anything to replenish some of that lost home-court edge, and sprinkle in some drama along the way.

* * * 

So what might a Selection Saturday look like for the NBA?

Here’s how I’d pick the matchups starting with the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks. Now, keep in mind, this is using current playoff teams if the season ended today. If the season resumed with regular-season games or restarted with group play, the playoff picture might look different. New Orleans could make a run. So could the Blazers. But for now, in this exercise, they’re out.

With the No. 1 overall selection, the Milwaukee Bucks select … the Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are in a bad spot. Kyrie Irving (shoulder surgery) and Kevin Durant (Achilles surgery) are expected to be sidelined. Former head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired two games before the shutdown and replaced by assistant coach Jacque Vaughn. The Nets weren’t allowed to open their practice facility until late May. 

This team might have a classic “Nobody Believes In Us” card (shouts to Bill Simmons). But there’s a reason no one believes in them. In these two teams’ lone meeting in late January, the Bucks won by 20. And that was in Brooklyn. With Irving. And only 25 minutes of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The juiciest part: Atkinson was Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer’s top assistant at their previous stop in Atlanta. Hire him, Bud. And have him announce the selection. 

No. 2. Los Angeles Lakers
Opponent: Orlando Magic

Remember, there are no fans in this hypothetical, so the only home cooking the Magic might enjoy is they won’t need to travel to the location. Even still, the Lakers would be wise to pick the team with the worst record in the playoff field. Yes, the Lakers lost their last meeting against the Magic, but Anthony Davis didn’t play and the Magic nearly blew a 21-point lead, hanging on to win by just one point. 

Interesting note: Davis has struggled against Nikola Vucevic in his career, winning just four of his 11 career matchups against the Orlando big man in his career. However, all of those games came when Davis was a member of the Pelicans. If the Magic get lockdown defender Jonathan Isaac back from a knee injury, I might think about going in a different direction, but in the end, 30-34 is 30-34.

No. 3 Toronto Raptors
Opponent: Memphis Grizzlies

The Marc Gasol Bowl. Or is it the Jonas Valanciunas revenge series? Either way, this matchup would be juicy. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and the young Grizz stunned the NBA this season en route to the No. 8 seed in the West, but the Raptors would have plenty of reason to choose Memphis beyond its lack of experience.

The Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is a tad inflated for a couple reasons. Their minus-0.6 net-rating is more reflective of a 30-35 team. Secondly, they had the most difficult remaining schedule in the entire NBA before the final 17 games were wiped out. The one team the Grizzlies didn’t face this season: the Raptors. Gasol’s long-awaited return to Memphis was supposed to happen Mar. 28, but the shutdown nixed that. Gasol hasn’t faced his former team since being traded in Feb. 2019. What better time than now?

No. 4 L.A. Clippers
Opponent: Indiana Pacers

There will be no fans to motivate Paul George with loud boos this time around. After George tallied 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 11-point Clippers win in a bitter Indiana arena back in December, maybe that’s a good thing for the Pacers. The Clippers won that game handily despite not having Kawhi Leonard, who was resting on the second night of a back-to-back.

The Pacers will be short-handed as it is. About three weeks before the shutdown, Jeremy Lamb, one of the Pacers’ top scorers, went down with a brutal knee injury (torn ACL and lateral meniscus and fractured knee). It remains to be seen how Victor Oladipo will look after the long layoff, but the Clippers’ depth -- bolstered further with the additions of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris before the shutdown -- should overwhelm the Pacers, who were swept last season by Boston in the first round. 

No. 5 Boston Celtics
Opponent: Dallas Mavericks

The Celtics should be the loudest proponent of the pick-your-opponent format. If the league sticks with the traditional conference split for the playoffs, the third-seeded Celtics would, as of now, face the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. In a 1-through-16 format, as of now, the fifth-seeded Celtics would face ... the 12th-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. For a Celtics team that has lost three of the four games against Philly this season, that’d be a rough draw. 

The Mavericks figure to be an easier foe than the Sixers. The Celtics have won both matchups against Dallas this season, but Luka Doncic only played in one of those tilts. Kristaps Porzingis, who was still taking occasional games off to manage his injury recovery from a torn ACL, is one of those players I worry about when it comes to the long layoff and accelerated training camp. In the end, as long as the Celtics don’t draw Philly, it should be seen as a win.

No. 6 Denver Nuggets
Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder

I’m a little surprised Chris Paul’s new squad lasted this long in my draft, but they finally go off the board here. I don’t think the Nuggets are feeling great about any of the teams left -- Houston, OKC or Philly -- but the Thunder probably give them their best chance to prevail.

In two matchups this season, the Nuggets split the series 1-1 with their divisional rivals. So much of the Thunder’s success hinges on a 35-year-old Paul staying healthy in these unusual circumstances. With him on the floor the Thunder are plus-295 this season; with Paul on the bench, they are minus-138, per NBA.com. To me, this late in the draft, it’s all about picking your poison and the Thunder feel like the least dangerous choice of the bunch.

No. 7 Utah Jazz 
Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers

The Jazz better hope that there aren’t any regular-season games in Orlando, because I could easily see them losing a few games and being one of the first teams picked in this type of draft. Utah’s sharpshooter, Bojan Bogdanavich, is out after undergoing wrist surgery and who knows where the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell feud ends up.

Philly is one of the few matchups where I feel Rudy Gobert could excel. Houston’s new five-out system would threaten Gobert’s ability to stay on the floor, despite his Defensive Player of the Year chops. Here are Gobert’s plus-minus numbers in his most recent games against Houston: minus-12, minus-6, minus-15, minus-15, plus-2, plus-6, minus-20, minus-23 and minus-15. Anything but Houston. 

No. 8 Miami Heat
Opponent: Houston Rockets

The Heat land the Rockets in a straight 1-through-16 format and they land them again here. The Rockets stumbled before the season shut down, losing three of their final four games, but I still wouldn’t want anything to do with the Rockets’ new look, especially if James Harden looks this fit when play resumes. 

If regular-season games are played, the 41-24 Heat could fall into the bottom half of the board and would be ripe for the picking given the way their defense fell apart in February. Only 2.5 games separate the Jazz, Heat, Pacers, Sixers, Thunder, Rockets and Mavericks in the standings, so this pack of teams could be shuffled dramatically if there’s some sort of lead-up into the postseason. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Iconic Michael Jordan weightlifting photo detailed by photographer Andrew Bernstein

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Getty Images

Iconic Michael Jordan weightlifting photo detailed by photographer Andrew Bernstein

Michael Jordan, in a crisp white Air Jordan tank, shoulder presses 65-pound dumbbells. 

Behind him is longtime trainer Tim Grover. Over his right shoulder stand former NBC reporter Ahmad Rashad and Hall of Fame sportswriter Jack McCallum. 

It is an iconic photograph captured nearly 30 years ago by Hall of Fame photographer Andy Bernstein. 

“Man, Michael is ripped in this picture,” Bernstein said. “Look at those biceps! Tim was doing his job.”

Bernstein explained how he gained access to photograph moments like this on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

“A lot of this has to do with trust that I’ve earned, especially with Tim,” Bernstein said. “The trainer rules the room.”

Listen to The Habershow here:

Bernstein, who is on Instagram as adbphotoinc, explained why the image remains popular nearly 30 years later. 

“There aren’t really any other still photos that exist of Michael lifting like this,” Bernstein said. “I had the same experience with Kobe too because he was also very private with his weight lifting regimen.”

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Bernstein:

4:20 -- Hazards of champagne celebrations

13:50 -- Michael Jordan the Piano Man

29:00 -- The famous MJ lifting photo

34:28 -- Kobe memories

46:40 -- LeBron’s scissor-kick dunk photo

1:02:07 -- Why Phil Jackson hated strobe lighting

For more on Jordan, listen and subscribe to the trailer of Sports Uncovered: