“Probably a B,” the Rockets’ leading scorer and assist man said. “We’ve been pretty good. We got a few things to be consistent with, the defensive effort, communication, rebounding, offensively not getting stagnant at times. We get better with [those things], we got an opportunity to be standing still at the end of the year.”
Standing still? As in the last team standing? Champions?
Last year at this time, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff was saying the Rockets were a broken team. They would go on to finish 41-41 and, as the No. 8 playoff seed, were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in five games. The season was filled with meetings, on-the-court arguments, phone calls, text messages and utter nonsense. Those who lived it still can’t explain what exactly happened to those Rockets.
Things are different now.
“Not even close,” Harden said.
At this season’s All-Star break, the Rockets are the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with the third-most victories in the NBA. Houston is second in the league in points per game (114.4), fourth in offensive pace (99.3) and 15th in defensive rating (108). The Rockets are a stunning 12-1 this season in the second game of back-to-back games. Coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t believe in the rest theory that some coaches adhere to. He wants his healthy players to play.
Harden has emerged as a viable MVP candidate. He’s the NBA’s third-leading scorer (29.2) and leads the league in assists (11.3) and adjusted assists (14.1). Harden has 15 triple-doubles this season, second only to Russell Westbrook.
And Eric Gordon, who won the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend, is a leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award with his 17.5-point scoring average and plus-10.4 mark in the box score.
Much of the Rockets’ success can be attributed to owner Leslie Alexander favoring D’Antoni as the coach over Jeff Van Gundy, and GM Daryl Morey getting players such as Ryan Anderson and Gordon to fit the space-and-pace offensive system and hiring assistants to raise the defensive intensity.
Not everything has gone the Rockets’ way. Houston has suffered losses to Golden State and San Antonio, the teams above it in the West. Memphis, a potential first-round opponent, has two wins over Houston this season.
But that’s minor quibbling. The players have bought into D’Antoni’s style of play and his relaxed personality. Houston went on a stretch in which it won 20 of 22 games and had win streaks of 10 and nine.
It’s almost as if last season didn’t happen.
“I remember it,” forward Corey Brewer said. “You go through stuff every year, every season. Last year was just a bad season all the way around, we just couldn’t figure it out. Sometimes things happen; we still made the playoffs. It is what it is. So anytime you make the playoffs, it’s not a horrible year. For us, we expected more than just the playoffs, that’s why it was such a bad year.”
Harden decided to take charge of this team. His team. Harden skipped the Olympic Games to work on his body for the upcoming season. In 2015-16, Harden came in overweight and nursing an ankle sprain. He just couldn’t find a flow to his season. It led to poor results. Harden wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. He called trainer Irv Roland, whom the Rockets eventually hired in the basketball operations department, and got to work.
The result? Harden arrived in camp slimmer and ready, both mentally and physically.
Harden wasn’t alone in fine-tuning the body and mind.
D’Antoni said Gordon rededicated himself to the weight room to make sure he could deal with the grind of the season. Guard Patrick Beverley said he lost 17 pounds in the offseason to make sure he was ready, too.
And Harden — irked that Kevin Durant wouldn’t give the Rockets a chance to make a pitch for him — did his part in the courtship of Anderson and Gordon, whom he met in separate meetings with team officials in Atlanta and Los Angeles. After those two signed, Harden gathered the team for offseason workouts in Las Vegas during summer league and in Miami.
“I just think we’re all getting older, there comes a time where you prioritize different, you start wanting different things in life,” Beverley said. “We’re blessed and fortunate to have everything you want growing up, the money, the cars, stuff like that. We got families now and you try to leave your legacy and that’s winning. Our focus is different. The person I was four years ago and James, when he got here four to five years ago, is definitely different than how it is now.
“We want to be champions.”
During workouts, players would gather for lunch and dinner. While everybody knew each other, Brewer said the time spent together away from fans, media and opponents meant so much more.
Harden said he grew as a player and person.
“A lot of help, not going to take all the credit,” Harden said. “Got a lot of help from my teammates and coaches and everybody in this organization to allow me to focus on what I got to do. It makes my job easier to go out there and do it at a high level every night.”
Another thing the Rockets changed? Communication. There would be no more silence. There would be no more bickering without solving the root problems. If a player has a problem, speak up. Not tomorrow. Today.
“We address our problems right away, and we’re able to communicate with each better,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “It’s easier to get things done.”
The stretch run
Back in December, D’Antoni surprised reporters by saying there are must-win games that early in the season. A loss here and there could affect playoff positioning. D’Antoni is treating every game, no matter the opponent, as if it means something. He doesn’t want somebody else controlling the Rockets’ playoff positioning. At the break last year, the Rockets were the ninth seed in the West and needed a three-game winning streak to close the season to make the postseason.
Getting help from another team isn’t part of D’Antoni’s mindset. He wants the Rockets to help themselves.
“December was huge,” he said of the Rockets’ 15-2 mark. “January, the month that we had wasn’t bad, 10-7. It could have been better. December was great, we’re making a pretty good February [4-2] so far. You’re only as good as the last time we played, we all know that.”
Houston holds a four-game lead over the fourth-seeded LA Clippers, whom they play two more times.
With the trade deadline coming up on Thursday, Houston could use more depth at guard, and there are concerns Harden might wear down near the end of the season, which was the case two seasons ago when his team reached the West finals.
The Rockets, however, feel better about themselves. Last February, Dwight Howard stood outside the Moda Center in Portland following Bickerstaff’s proclamation that the team was broken and said everything would be OK. While Howard departed in the offseason to Atlanta, the big man’s words are coming true.
“I just think it’s a total different situation, I don’t think you can compare the two,” Ariza said. “Last year was a lot of unknown, a lot of uncertainties. Everybody knows what’s going on [this year]. We know what our problems are [and] what our strengths are, and it’s up to us to fix them and get better at them.”
Indeed, everything is OK with the Rockets right now.
“Last year was over, you’re right, we were broken, but it ain’t about that,” Brewer said. “We’re playing good basketball, the All-Star break is going to be good for us. It’s not about what we have to do better at, we’re winning. Now let’s get some rest so we can make a push and get the highest seed we can get and go get a title.”