LeBron James learned to leverage the media a while back, and that continued after Thursday night's 126-111 Rockets win over Bron's Lakers. It was a good day for James Harden, who knocked down 18-of-19 free throws en route to a 51-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple-double in the win. James brought up that fact—smartly exaggerating a bit by saying he got to the line 20 times—when speaking to reporters after the game. Here's the conversation in full, so the few who get paid a living wage to cover the NBA don't deride aggregation (a key ingredient in their personal brand's importance) in their next podcast:
LeBron: What we didn’t want to do was put James [Harden] on the line, and he got there 20 times.
Reporter: Defending with their hands behind their backs, were you trying to make a point?
LeBron: Just trying to defend without fouling. That’s a point of emphasis any time you play Houston. They got guys that can sell calls really good—Chris [Paul and James [Harden]. So, gotta try to keep your hands out of the cookie jar.
Reporter: Is it harder for your young guys to not foul, especially for James [Harden]—
LeBron: I thought some of [the calls against the Lakers] were tough; A few of them was tough calls. I mean, we played really good defense and something, some of the calls, there’s nothing you can do about them, but you just try to move on to the next possession.
Reporter: When you have a guy like that [Harden], how hard is it to overcome that kind of performance?
LeBron: No, you can’t put him on the line, we put him on the line 20 times. He’s already talented as shit offensively. Put the ball in the hole multiple ways, drive, step-back threes. But you give him easy points; You put a guy like that at the line. You can’t put [Kevin Durant] at the line for 20 free throws. You can’t put [Harden] on the line for 20 free throws. You can’t put any of our scorers that we have in our league on the line 20 times because they see the ball go in the hole.
Chef's kiss emoji. Brilliant. Talk to most NBA fans—who, when they get cut, the NBA dribbles out—and they'll tell you the Rockets' effectiveness getting to the line isn't the brand of basketball they personally enjoy. The nuance of a nudge, the recoil after a tap, the lurch after a lean, all reside in Harden's bag of tricks. Chris Paul owns another bag, one with a slight pull of the jersey blocked by a screen, a spectral hand check and other intangible advantages reside. They're connoisseurs, just like LeBron was during that back and forth with the media.
We're watching artisans here, and to devolve into anger over the officiating misses the craftsmanship. James isn't angry, he's buffing his latest piece, after seeing Harden's gala opening get rave reviews. Metaphor aside, LeBron's carefully plotted words will reverberate around the league office, and the next time the Rockets see purple and gold, the refs will be on alert.