James Harden's Solo Act Not Cutting It for Rockets and Wednesday NBA Takeaways

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 17, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 16:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets takes the basketball up the court against the Los Angeles Clippers during their game at the Toyota Center on March 16, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

You have to wonder if James Harden gets tired of going it alone. And then you observe his style of play and notice the way it so often forces the rest of the Houston Rockets into the background, and you realize maybe Harden is fine with it.

He scored 33 points and handed out eight assists in Houston’s 122-106 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, tossing in eight turnovers in the process. The Rockets' next two top scorers (combined) didn't equal Harden's output, and only one, Michael Beasley, managed even half of his 23 field-goal attempts.

Chris Paul led the Clippers with 15 points and 16 assists, helping six of his teammates reach double figures. It was a study in contrast, one that showed just how different two ball-dominant superstars can be.

Because as Harden isolated and attacked multiple defenders in the lane, Paul looked for options like these:

There you go wondering again: What's to stop Harden and the Rockets from doing something similar with Dwight Howard? Harden is exceptionally talented, and he sees the floor well, which makes the answer seem more like unwillingness than inability.

Harden is a great player. You can't look at his numbers and conclude anything different. And you can't ignore the way he led his team to the conference finals last season. But you can question whether his style of play/personality/preferred offensive M.O. are things around which Houston can build sustainable success.

Take this season as an example. Over the past few months, Howard has been marginalized to a shocking degree. (Note: D12 is no peach to play with in his own right, and he probably deserves some of the blame for his rough year. But we're trying to make a point here.) Howard shot the ball four times in 33 minutes against the Clippers. He didn't block a shot, and he grabbed only seven rebounds. His disconnection from the team, and his rote approach to the game, were nakedly obvious.

Except when he tried to hogtie Paul. He was pretty engaged then.

Mar 16, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) is fouled by Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) in the second half at Toyota Center. The Clippers won 122-106. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Blame Howard's immaturity if you want. But the fact is Harden decides how the Rockets play. He decides when teammates get the ball, where they get it and, most importantly, if they get it. Howard hasn't averaged this few field-goal attempts per game since he was a rookie. And he's shooting more accurately from the field this year than ever, so ineffectiveness isn't to blame.

Harden's usage percentage is second in the league and first among guards, per Basketball-Reference.com. No other non-point guard gets as many touches per game as Harden does, per NBA.com. This is a guy who has the ball all the time. If he wants to involve Howard—or anyone else—it's in his power to do it.

This is where you could cite his assists if you were feeling argumentative. He averages 7.1 per game, which ranks seventh in the league. But he's also turned the ball over 302 times, by far the highest total in the NBA

It's not just Howard whom Harden hasn't helped. There was the failed Ty Lawson experiment. Josh Smith's return hasn't really worked either. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a player on the Rockets whom Harden has actively made better—or at least turned into something more than a second-thought cog. Refer back to Paul spoon-feeding DeAndre Jordan for evidence of how things can look in the alternative.

And, yes, we've got to tag Harden's defense. It's also evidence of his individualistic approach. Watch here as he appears to be doing the right thing, exhorting his teammates as he runs back. And then notice how he loses touch with his own man, the ball and essentially every single thing happening on the floor before Jordan dunks on his head:

This, in varying forms, happens to Harden a lot.

Yes, this feels like a takedown. But it's really just an observation that the results of Harden going it alone so much and in so many different senses has the Rockets looking less like a team and more like one guy who happens to play with four others in matching shirts.

Houston will have money to spend assuming Howard opts out this summer, and maybe it'll find the perfect pieces to fit around Harden: a bunch of standstill shooters and a big man who likes rolling and defense but doesn't care about touches. Maybe that's how this needs to work.

The Rockets have to hope that's the case because we haven't seen much evidence to suggest Harden is interested in changing his singular ways.

Russell Westbrook Remembers

Mar 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket against the Boston Celtics in the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook really only has one speed (megahyperturbo), so it's rare when you can say he appeared particularly peppy. But it sure seemed like he had a little something extra for the Boston Celtics in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 130-109 win Wednesday.

The last time Boston and OKC met (Nov. 15), Marcus Smart scored 26 points and was key in limiting Westbrook to 5-of-20 shooting in a 100-85 Celtics win in Oklahoma City. Sneaker Reporter's Travis Singleton caught Westbrook's reaction to a postgame scrum question about Smart's impact:

SneakerReporter @SneakerReporter

Westbrook just destroyed Marcus Smart in this postgame interview @ByJayKing @KyleDraperTV @SherrodbCSN https://t.co/JGVfCBQ67p

Nothing twisted here, Mr. Westbrook. We get it. You're a bad man, and you enjoy revenge, per Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman:

Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater

No one enjoys an 11-0 run on the road like Russell Westbrook enjoys an 11-0 run on the road. Shouting to no one in particular. OKC up 20.

Westbrook put up 24 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals in just 26 minutes, and Oklahoma City buried the Celtics with a 42-point third-quarter outburst. Both Durant and Westbrook sat out almost the entire fourth period with the game in hand.

OKC has played unevenly this year, struggling to close out games and often viewing defense as optional. Neither issue arose in this one. Maybe the Thunder should feed reporters more questions about opponents playing well against Westbrook. They seem to motivate him. And when Westbrook is dialed in, it's hard to see a way for the Thunder to lose.


The Hornets Know Who They Are

Though the Charlotte Hornets' seven-game winning streak ended Monday, the end of their run didn't prompt any deep philosophical searching. They knew it was a blip. More importantly, they knew the unselfish, three-point-heavy offense they've ridden all year was still their greatest strength.

That faith was rewarded in a 107-99 win over the Orlando Magic, but it was also tested and then rewarded when a 1-of-11 start from long range gave way to a 10-of-26 finish. According to the Hornets PR Twitter feed, Charlotte now has 42 games with at least 10 made threes this season—second in the league and more than the franchise had in the last six seasons combined.

The NBA is a jump-shooting league now, and the teams that embrace that truth (and have the personnel to make high-volume attempts count) are playing with a major advantage. The Hornets gave back a huge chunk of a 26-point lead before finishing the Magic off, and they're not a perfect team. But don't be surprised if they shoot their way into a top-four spot in the East before the season's out.

Cleveland Can Balance Without Its Training Wheels...Barely

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 16: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives around Zaza Pachulia #27 and Devin Harris #34 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on March 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated th
Jason Miller/Getty Images

With LeBron James resting, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had a chance to prove themselves against a struggling but ever-inventive Dallas Mavericks team. And if the idea of NBA stars needing to prove themselves sounds strange, consider Cleveland's 3-12 record in the last 15 games James has missed.

"We definitely have to speak about that tonight, just being professional, as always, and we got to start playing better when LeBron doesn't play," head coach Tyronn Lue told reporters before the game, per Tom Withers of the Associated Press. "So, guys have to step up and be ready to play and take on this challenge."

Step up they did. Irving ended his night with 33 points, while Love piled up 23 points and 18 rebounds. Dallas leveraged the same zone defense it used to beat Charlotte on Monday and turned a blowout loss into a nip-and-tuck contest in the waning moments. But Cleveland lucked into a couple of sloppy Mavericks turnovers in the final 40 seconds and escaped with the 99-98 win.

Modest as the margin was, and even factoring in the Mavericks' recent struggles, this win mattered for the Cavs. James is one of the league's best safety blankets, and it's easy to see how his presence sometimes creates dependence. The great lingering question (one unanswered as Irving and Love missed last year's Finals) is about the fitness of the Cavaliers' supporting cast.

They were up for the challenge Monday.

Bonus Mavs Note: This is not a drill. Dallas looks like it's headed for a lottery spot after a surprisingly good start. And it plays the Golden State Warriors twice in its next four games.


John Wall's Not Finished Yet

The Washington Wizards followed a blowout win against the Detroit Pistons on Monday with a 117-96 takedown of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, preserving their hazy playoff dreams behind John Wall's triple-double.

With 29 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, Wall controlled the uptempo attack against a Bulls defense that knew it needed to stem the transition tide but simply couldn't. Jimmy Butler spoke to that after the loss, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop

Butler:"We talked about how we needed to get back in transition before game, at shootaround. We didn’t do that. We just weren’t disciplined"

Derrick Rose returned after a two-game absence and looked sporadically spry on offense, but Johnson also noticed how little of that energy showed up on the other end:

K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop

Rose dropped into a defensive stance and Wall dribbled past him like he wasn't there.

Washington's defense, on the other hand, has looked better of late. Maybe because Wall and his teammates had some straight talk about the problems, per Michael Lee of The Vertical:

Michael Lee @MrMichaelLee

John Wall on WAS 2-game swing: "I think we just kind of looked at film & said our defense in pick-and-rolls is some 💩so we have to fix it."

It's still difficult to see this Wizards team making noise in the postseason, and its long-term prospects should include an overhaul. But you've got to give it to Wall and his team for beating the two clubs immediately ahead of them in the playoff race (Detroit and Chicago) in their most recent outings. That's some serious resilience coming off a five-game losing streak.

Now only a game-and-a-half out of the eighth spot, the Wizards may not be done after all.

You Learn Something New Every Day

Check out this nugget from Peter Edmiston of Sports 56 WHBQ FM and the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Peter Edmiston @peteredmiston

Never seen this- Wolves put masking tape w/ refs' names/numbers written on it on floor in front of bench, wanting players to engage w/ them

Interesting, right? It makes sense, too. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a young team, and it never hurts to build good foundations for player-referee relationships. Maybe the Wolves' plan had something to do with their 114-108 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. It's also possible Zach LaVine's game-high 28 points were a factor.

Little-known fact: The Clippers also have pieces of masking tape in front of their bench with information on how to address officials. They say "Seriously?!," "Are you KIDDING me?!" and "Come ooooooooooon!" A fourth piece of tape just says (in small lettering): "Make sure to scream all three on every possession."

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Current through games played March 16.


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