James Harden responds to 'free-throw shooting contest' heckle with record night at charity stripe

Jack Baer

In the great landscape of basketball, James Harden is truly unique.

It’s not just his ability to be the most prolific scorer the game has seen since a young Michael Jordan. It’s his ability to do that and still have fans lament the idea of watching him play because of how he gets those points. Namely, free throws. An ungodly, unprecedented amount of free throws.

That dynamic emerged yet again with a fan’s heckle on Tuesday, and Harden had a perfect response ready. Both verbally and on the court, even in a losing effort.

James Harden isn’t loving the fouls either

A game against the San Antonio Spurs resulted in another abundance of free throws for Harden. By the 4:08 mark in the first quarter, he was headed to the line for his sixth and seventh of the game.

At that point, a fan at the AT&T Center had seen enough. He yelled at Harden that no one wants to see a free-throw shooting contest. Harden’s response: Blame the Spurs, not him.

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That’s fair enough from Harden, though it might carry a little more weight if Harden weren’t infamous for inviting contact and outright flopping.

However, Harden wasn’t done there. For the next few hours, Harden went to the line and sank shot after shot, eventually finishing the night a perfect 24-of-24 from the charity stripe.

According to Basketball Reference’s Play Index, that number of free throw attempts without a miss is a new NBA regular season record, breaking Dominique Wilkins’ 23-of-23 night in 1992. It also matches Dirk Nowitzki’s 24-of-24 night in the 2011 Western Conference finals.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden shoots a free throw during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
James Harden is on a historic free throw pace. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

That record night couldn’t stop the Rockets from falling in double overtime though, losing 135-133. Unlike his free throw shooting, Harden’s 11-of-38 shooting from the field and 4-of-20 shooting from deep probably weren’t assets.

Harden eventually finished with 50 points, his second straight game cracking the half-century mark. He is now averaging 39.5 points per game, easily the most in the league as he tries to reclaim the MVP award he thinks he deserved last year.

Refs completely blow call on James Harden dunk

The Rockets have good reason to be miffed at the final result, given that the officials straight up did not let a dunk from Harden count in the fourth quarter. You’d imagine two extra points in a game that was tied at the end of regulation would have been quite beneficial.

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The officials didn’t have much of an explanation for their humongous mistake after the game. Crew chief James Capers basically admitted his crew blew the call, but the Rockets never actually asked to challenge the call in the required 30-second window while protesting the call.

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The Rockets might not let this go either. One source told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that the team is “optimistic” the NBA will take action by either rewarding the win to the Rockets or order the final 7:50 of the game be replayed. The team is reportedly ready to file a protest with the league.

While that is sorted out, we can still marvel (or wince) at the absurd free throw pace of Harden.

Harden on pace for free throw history

Whether fans like it or not, Harden has been one of the best players in NBA history at getting to the line since landing in Houston. That has kicked into overdrive this year.

Harden is now on an 82-game pace for 1,070 made free throws this season, which would obliterate Jerry West’s record mark of 840 in the 1965-66 season.

The Beard currently leads the league in free throw attempts with 298 — 14.9 per game. Combine that with his career 85.8 percent free throw shooting and you have the most consistent and efficient scoring method in the league.

No team ever wants to allow an 85.8 percent shooter to reach the line, and yet Harden gets there again and again. It might not be pretty, but you can’t really blame the Rockets for using a perfectly legal cheat code.

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