Rockets Jazz Basketball

Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) blocks the shot of Houston Rockets guard James Harden, right, in the first half during an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 20, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) ORG XMIT: UTRB114

First it was the alley-oop.

Then there was the Eurostep.

The Euro's misdirection then extended out to the perimeter and turned into the step-back 3-pointer.

Now, it has evolved into the ... wait, what do you even call this?

Over the years, basketball has evolved into a shooter's dream and a defender's nightmare.

The gray area of the NBA's rules when guarding a shooter have never seemed so fuzzy.

Since James Harden entered the league, experts and novices alike marvel over the former MVP's fancy footwork and his ability to use the touchy rules of defending a jump shot into his favor.

His step-back is deadly on its own. Harden is 20 for 42 on step-back 3s during these playoffs, which is an alarming 47.6 percent.

His quick and spell-binding mirage of ball-handling moves while stationary makes even the greatest defenders jittery. At the blink of an eye, he uses either a straight shot at the rim or a jolting step away from his defender into a high-percentage (for him, anyway) long-range jumper, and it's nearly impossible to guard.

Especially when the slightest touch of any part of him will send the superstar flailing in an Oscar-deserving performance that is really quite impressive on its own.

To make guarding him even tougher, Harden has mastered the art of basketball physics.

He understands that nearly any contact with a jump shooter in motion could very well be considered a foul. It's those touchy rules for a shooter and actor of Harden's caliber that makes an isolation situation a paradise for him.

He knows that once he steps back to create space for his jumper, a defender's natural motion would send them pulling toward Harden to eliminate said space while also jumping in the air to contest his deadly shot.

So while a defender is air-bound and in the act of closing in on his shot, Harden is already in his vulnerable shooting motion and has found an extra set of keys that lead straight to the free-throw line.

After Harden steps back to create space, he just as quickly leaps his body forward while shooting and makes sure to land right back in the same space he had just created. The same space a defender is still in the act of recovering from.

They then collide, and a defender's natural motion, even when he sees the contact coming, can't stop this train wreck from ensuing.

What's even more telling is Harden's ability to make these long-distance shots while falling to the ground. There's no doubt Harden has spent years practicing keeping his focus and followthrough intact just long enough before sending his extremities firing in opposite direction. It makes his four-point plays seem impossible and full of luck when, actually, the unorthodox move takes a lot of control, skill and repetition.

Is it flopping? Sometimes.

Most of the time, Harden's tactics work. And though he might add a little theatrics to sell the foul, he usually is indeed fouled. But as defenders are starting to analyze his game and control the way they close out better, if Harden doesn't get contact from his defender, he still creates it or the illusion of it.

Ironically, flailing his arms and legs in the direction of the defender could be a foul against Harden.

The Warriors' Draymond Green can attest to that.

"I've been fouled by James on a James 3-pointer," Green said after his team's Game 1 win over the Rockets last week.

What Harden has been able to do is so unique to him that it doesn't really have a name, and teams are scratching their heads and scrambling with awkward game plans on how to defend his motions.

In the first round, the Utah Jazz had defenders like Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder literally guarding Harden from behind with a clear path to the goal while centers like Rudy Gobert waited in the lane to contest his layups and floaters because his 3-point shooting is deadlier and more valuable than his drives to the bucket.

And while most basketball fans hate Harden's tactics about as much as they hate LeBron being compared to Kobe or Michael Jordan, they must admit they work.

So much so, other players have started to implement their own "3-and-flop" moves. Steph Curry does it at times. So do Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard.

The prevalence of this seemingly unguardable play has fans reluctant to ask:

"Is this the state of basketball now?"

Unlike the emergence of the alley-oop or the Eurostep, this play has fans and opponents shaking their heads in shame and hoping this isn't the new era of the sport they love and respect.

Quite frankly, if commissioner Adam Silver and the league don't create some type of new rule that makes this play more likely to be an offensive foul than a trip to the free-throw line, we're going to see more of it. And in a more evolved way as time goes on.