First thing's first: As much debate as there's been about what James Harden is doing to get to the free throw line so much... it's a foul.
What players are doing to Harden is a foul, and his brilliance as a baller has allowed a common and lazy practice of attempting to impede an offensive player's progress while trying to get around a screen has paid major dividends for Harden and the Rockets.
You can't just put your arm on a guy's chest to slow him down as he's driving. And if your hand gets caught in the cookie jar, you're going to put Harden at the line for three free throws.
One of my favorite basketball analysts, Coach Nick at BBallBreakdown, highlights that Harden went to the free throw line for three shots NINE TIMES in just five games against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During the regular season, one in which he may win the MVP award, James Harden averaged nearly 11 free throw attempts per game. But during the postseason, where he saw his minutes and usage go up, his free throw attempts shot up to 14.6 attempts per game.
San Antonio is one of the most disciplined teams that faced Harden this past season, though. Only two teams sent James Harden to the free throw line fewer times per game: the Thunder (whom Harden figured out in the playoffs) and the Kings (an odd statistical anomaly).
Harden averaged just nine free throws per game against the Spurs in four games this season, and that's a crucial stat. As our own David Flores pointed out in his Spurs-Rockets preview today, the Spurs' three wins over Houston were all close, with the differential adding up to just 10 points.
"We always put a lot of effort in not fouling guys," Tony Parker said after practice on Sunday. "We try to not foul, just try to show our hands and play great defense."
The greatness of that Spurs defense showed some chinks in the armor against Memphis, as the Grizzlies put up more points than they averaged during the regular season in the opening round and shot lights-out from three-point land.
After practice on Sunday, David Lee said that the last round was a wrestling match while this round will be a track meet.
Creating mismatches on fast breaks is one way Harden can get paired against a Spurs big man and possibly take advantage of mistakes that Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, and Patty Mills may be more ready for.
But Harden's play is something that the Spurs have gotten used the past few years, and the Silver and Black have seen plenty of success playing against him, going 9-3 against the Rockets over the last three seasons.
The problem that Houston has is that the Spurs are built to defend teams like the Rockets, which is why they've had so much success against them. The big men are so versatile and quick up top that the Spurs are willing to switch so that they can close out on three-point attempts and prevent easy buckets.
While Harden's assist numbers against the Spurs are slightly higher than his regular season average, his turnover numbers are also up by the same rate.
So really, the question going into the series isn't whether the Spurs can handle Harden, but if the Rockets can step up as a team and if Harden can get over the hump and conquer San Antonio's defense.
We'll start getting those answers tonight at the AT&T Center.