DeRozan’s Aversion to Cheap Free Throws

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DeMar DeRozan balled out in his native Los Angeles on Monday night, dropping 32 points and 14 assists for the Spurs in a thrilling overtime victory. If we’re picking nits though, he could have wiped away the chance for LeBron to tie it up and ended the game in regulation by taking cheap points.

To be clear, DeRozan had a spectacular game and will undoubtedly have many more in silver and black before it’s all said and done. This is one play, one decision that we are putting under the microscope because his aversion to taking the easy way out could have cost the Spurs the game last night.

Let’s pick it up with 24 seconds left and the Spurs up 3, after the Lakers mounted a quick 5-0 run. DeRozan runs a pick and roll with Aldridge, stops at the elbow, and uses multiple pump fakes to get his defender to jump at him late in the shot clock. He could have taken the contact and thrown up a shot, and in all likelihood he’d be at the charity stripe with a chance to ice the game. Instead, he passes it backward to a covered Forbes who is forced to take a bad three.

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This is not unusual for DeRozan, who seems morally opposed to drawing fouls in that way. It’s not something that shows up in the highlight reel or on the stat sheet, but you’ll see it if you look for it while you’re watching him play. Through these first three games in San Antonio, it’s clear that when others would jump at an airborne defender for easy points, DeRozan would prefer to make a basketball play.

DeRozan might have calculated that he wouldn’t get the call in a rocking Staples Center with the game on the line when the refs had swallowed the whistle on bumpy drives long ago. There is no guarantee that the refs will make the easy and correct call, but it was clearly his best option to get points on the play, and he rewarded bad defense by passing out of it to a guy who was covered by LeBron.

His reluctance to take cheap free throws seems rooted in principle and a deep respect for how the game should be played, and that’s honorable. He grew up calling his own fouls on the courts of Compton, and the most important unspoken rule about playing pick-up hoops anywhere is that you don’t call the soft stuff.

James Harden, who grew up just 15 minutes away in Lakewood, must have never gotten the memo. He has taken an entirely different approach to the game, and he’s had great success with it. It feels like Harden’s main goal on the court is to force defenders to foul him, and he’s damn good at it.

In his MVP campaign last year he led the league with 727 free throws, 86 more than second place. The year before, he got so good at ripping through on high pick and rolls to draw three free throws that he went to the stripe 881 times and forced the NBA to institute the Harden Rule.

Undeniably one of the best offensive talents in the NBA, Harden’s highlight reel sizzles and his numbers jump off the page. He’s a pick and roll surgeon with filthy handles and a nice jumper, and that’s why it is so infuriating, so downright disrespectful to the game of basketball when he uses his substantial talent to manufacture cheap fouls because he can. It’s the kind of thing that drives his opponents to shove him and start a brawl, just so they can tell him to go screw himself.

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Harden pins defenders’ arms to his chest and complains about it, and if someone bites on a pump fake, you can bet he’s jumping into their chest, screaming, and hitting the free throws. It’s super annoying to watch and play against, but it’s also part of where he gets a third of his many points, and why the Rockets win so many games.

DeRozan does not play the game that way, and the basketball purist in me is very happy about that. You want to root for the guy who fights like a gentleman and respects the understood rules, not the one who uses a sucker punch to incapacitate his opponent and then goes for the jugular. At the same time, if your guy is in the fight and it’s win or go home, kill or be killed, one of those options is clearly better than the other.

There is a middle ground between DeRozan and Harden, let’s call it North Long Beach. You don’t have to build your game around exploiting the loopholes, but that doesn’t mean you have to apologize for the defense’s mistakes. You can play the game the right way and still take the easy points when they’re given to you, especially if it slams the door shut on LeBron James and the Lakers.

What do you think?

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