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Andy Furillo: Kings will have their hands full Tuesday with the greatest beard in sports

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, right, is double-teamed by the Kings’ Quincy Acy, left, and Rajon Rondo on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden, right, is double-teamed by the Kings’ Quincy Acy, left, and Rajon Rondo on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston. The Associated Press

A beard on the mound that throws in the high 90s has to be pretty scary to the hitter, and a beard on the offensive line pulling upfield on a block can only be a terror to a defensive back alone in space.

But the toughest beard in sports these days has to be the one flying up the floor and exploding with a quick move into the lane, the one that can step back or spot up outside the three-point stripe and get to the free-throw line 11.2 times per game.

He’s one of the top five more difficult players to play against because he has the ball so much in his hands.

Kings coach George Karl, on Houston’s James Harden

The pitcher’s beard – it’s 60 feet and 6 inches away. The one on the face of the offensive lineman – it’s stuffed inside a face mask. But the one that belongs to James Harden – it’s right in your face if you’re a defender in the NBA, at least until it flashes past you on the way to the iron. Only then do you realize that while Harden wears the beard, the two of them are wearing you out.

Harden brings the most talented beard in sports to Sleep Train Arena when the Houston Rockets visit Tuesday night, and the supreme task of Kings coach George Karl is to figure out how to give it a trim.

Karl’s plan is mainly to make the beard work. Make it expend energy. And whatever you do, don’t foul it, because it makes 87 percent of its free throws. This season, Harden has attempted 268 free throws, the most in the NBA. As of Sunday morning, it was 71 more than anybody else, who in this instance is the closely shaved DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors.

“He’s one of the top five more difficult players to play against because he has the ball so much in his hands,” Karl said of Harden. “He has difficult situations, he has iso’s, he has pick and rolls, he’s coming off double screens. They move him around a lot, and our guards are going to be challenged quite aggressively.

“His number is always going to be a fairly big number,” Karl continued. “We want his efficiency to be hopefully under 40 percent, and hopefully he’ll get six free throws instead of 16.”

The beard shadowed the free-throw line exactly that many times in the Rockets’ Dec. 5 win over the Kings in Houston, and it sank 14 of the attempts on its way to 31 points. It also struck from the deep, making 5 of 6 three-point attempts. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it was an OK night at the Toyota Center theater for the Kings, who held Harden to one make in his eight other tries.

On Tuesday night, the lucky guy who will be asked again to keep Harden in the ballpark will be Ben McLemore, who actually did a terrific job overall the last time he confronted the beard. McLemore scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 42 minutes – all season highs.

Sometimes, the St. Louis-born talent, like the creative empty space inside the Gateway Arch of his hometown, can take on the appearance of invisibility. But there was no questioning McLemore’s presence a couple of weeks ago in Houston. He finished the night with a plus-eight, meaning the Kings scored that many points more with McLemore on the floor than when he wasn’t – no disappearing act there. The beard finished at a mere plus-one.

You’ve got to crowd him, make it look crowded for him in there, to not see a gap.

Swingman Omri Casspi, on what the Kings must do defensively against James Harden

“It was probably the best game I’ve seen Ben play in his career,” Karl said. “He seemed to be confident against one of the great offensive players, as a defenseman. Plus he played well offensively. It would be great to get the same performance. If we do, we’ve got a good chance of winning the game.”

As everybody knows, it takes a village to defend a beard, and McLemore will not be on an island when it comes to Harden, the NBA’s second-leading scorer with 29.1 points a game. Omri Casspi will help, either by himself or as part of a collective effort in support of McLemore.

The trick when it comes to Harden is to present an illusion of traffic, according to Casspi.

“You’ve got to crowd him, make it look crowded for him in there, to not see a gap,” Casspi said at practice Saturday.

The Kings will have a couple of different things going Tuesday, one in their favor and one against it.

The bad news is that point guard Rajon Rondo and his magnificent season will be put on hold for one game. He got kicked out of the Dec. 3 loss to the Boston Celtics in Mexico City when he mad-dogged a ref in one of those wordless staredowns that can get you hurt in some parts of town. Upset with the ejection, Rondo found his voice in the wrath he unleashed on the official, Bill Kennedy. Now it will cost him a day’s pay.

“It’s not the hand I would like to be dealt, but in an 82-game season, there are a lot of curveballs that are sent your way,” Karl said.

The good news for the Kings is the breaking ball the schedule threw at Houston. The Rockets play Monday night at Denver. Back-to-backs are never easy on a beard, especially when it has to play at altitude the night before – even if it belongs to James Harden.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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