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Referees could take the fuel out of Houston Rockets bets during the NBA Playoffs

The Houston Rockets own the NBA’s second best offense, the third best win/loss record and are anchored by a leading contender for MVP in James Harden.

They should be among the first teams mentioned when a list of title contenders is drawn up. And yet there is an element of Houston’s game which leaves some wondering whether its success will continue when the postseason begins on Saturday.

 Harden is the focal point of the Rockets offense and a large part of his game is getting to the charity stripe. He leads the league in free throw atepts and, while he is in the Top 5 for drives to the basket per game, he is uniquely skilled at drawing contact behind the 3-point line.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C

Chris Herring of wrote an excellent piece about how Harden – individually – gets more shooting fouls on 3-point attempts than any other team in the Association. New teammate Lou Williams happens to be second on that list.

 Still, you watch those clips and it’s hard not to say to yourself, “Is that really going to be called in the playoffs?”

 Are NBA games really officiated differently in the postseason?

The data tells us there are more fouls called and more free throw attempts in playoff games compared to the regular season in each of the past three years. So much for “letting them play”.

Two likely reasons for the increase in fouls:

1. Teams try harder defensively in the postseason

2. Teams will stick to the foul-and-stop-clock tactic longer when trailing late in games because of the increased stakes 

Getting back to Harden and the Rockets, their postseason success has been limited outside of 2015, when they went to the Western Conference finals, losing 4-1 to the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors handed them another gentleman’s sweep last spring in the opening round and Portland got by them in six games in 2014. Houston is a collective 15-13 ATS and 15-13 Over/Under in those postseason runs.

Harden’s free throw attempts dip slightly in the postseason even though his minutes and shot attempts increase. He’s averaged 8.3 (2014), 10.5 (2015), and 9.0 (2016) attempts from the foul line the past three postseasons, shooting a combined 88.7 percent from the line in those runs. 

Harden has picked up 8.23 points per playoff game from the charity stripe the last three years, making up almost 31 percent of his total points production (26.87 ppg) in those postseason runs. This year, Harden is recording an average of 9.3 points from the foul line, which accounts for 32 percent of his average scoring production (29.1 ppg).

Houston meets Harden’s former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the opening round of the postseason. The Rockets went 3-1 SU and ATS against OKC this season (2-2 O/U), winning both home dates and splitting games in Oklahoma City. 

Harden averaged only 20.5 points in those meetings with Oklahoma City, and got to the foul line just 8.5 times per contests. His best performance of the four games was a 26-point effort in a 118-116 Rockets win at home (failed to cover -8) in which he was 12 for 14 from the foul line.

The Thunder commit the seventh most personal fouls per game in the NBA (20.9) and send opponents to the stripe for 24.2 free throw attempts an outing – ninth highest – with foes converting 18.5 of those freebies. And, when it comes to defending the 3-point arc, Oklahoma City has watched opponents attempt 24.8 shots from distance per game (fourth fewest) and make 35.6 percent of those deep looks (16th) for an average of just 8.9 3-pointers against per contest (fourth fewest). 

The Rockets shoot more 3-pointers (40.1) and three throws (26.6) than any other team and we know they’ll continue to bomb from deep in the playoffs. We just don’t know yet whether the whistles will be there in the postseason or if Houston will come up as flat as a Pepsi ad.