Western Conference Beware: James Harden, Rockets Are Done Messing Around

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2018

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 15:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets is seen during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 15, 2018 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni is not one to bury the lede.

The Rockets' less-than-impressive start to the season has been a point of contention, but they've been on a roll lately, and he's upfront about why.

"There's just a determination, he's not going to let us lose," D'Antoni said of James Harden, who finished with 47 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals in Houston's 102-97 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday.

"He cares. Every big shot, every big playthis is at least an MVP level. He's the Western Conference Player of the Week for a reason."

Houston has not lived up to expectations this year, so Harden is holding court on the hardwood.

"We're in a hole," he said. "I keep saying the same thing, but you look at the standings, and it's like, 'this sucks.' Just to look and see that you're not where you're supposed to be. We just need to continue to work and build our way up there."

Over the last two weeks, the Rockets have worked hard to change their fortunes. After a woeful 2-7 stretch, Houston (15-14) has won four straight and is above .500 for the first time since Nov. 23.

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Thanks to wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies and Jazz, the Rockets finally seem to be figuring it out.

Which begs the question: are they done messing around?

It might be too early for a definitive answer, but the fact that the wins have come over bona fide Western Conference playoff hopefuls is an indicator that Houston is poised for a turnaround.

"For us, we know it's just about piling up wins right now," Chris Paul said. "Our defense has picked up because of our intensity and attention to detail. We just have to keep building on it and try to keep it going for 48 minutes."

To their credit, the defense has been "on a string" lately.

The Rockets held the Jazz to 97 points on 39 percent shooting, a stark contrast to the 109 points per game they allowed in the first two meetings this season, both losses.

"Defensively, I thought we did a really good job, holding them under 100 points and fighting for four quarters," Harden said. "That's a part of it: our defense being on the same page, and guys just being more active."

Houston also held Memphis to 97 points and has won the rebounding battle in three of the last four games.

The commitment to playing harder during this run is helping Houston look like the team everyone saw last year.

"I just try to tell our guys that there's so many ways you can contribute or win a game," D'Antoni said. "And it's not your shot. It's being able to go 100 percent all the time and understand what we're doing and rebound and run the floor.

"That's why you have Chris and James and Eric [Gordon]. They're going to make plays. All you got to do is bring the energy, be smart on defense, and you can contribute."

Since Dec. 11, the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.1, a big improvement over their overall fourth-worst rating of 111.5.

"We're doing a good job of game-planning, and our effort's there," Gordon said. "We definitely got to switch some things up sometimes, and it's really been working out for us. The guys are really picking it up and working hard to get these wins. That's the reason we're on this winning streak: because guys are getting it, and it's easier, and pickups seem easier."

Houston's offensive efficiency is also trending upward. The Rockets are fifth overall at 111.5 (points scored per 100 possessions), and they are at 115 during the last quartet of games.

The reason for the offensive improvement?

The Harden stimulus package.

He is consistently taking over games and decimating defenses with his ability to draw fouls and employ his lethal dribble drives and step-back threes.

During the Rockets' current winning streak, Harden has averaged an impressive 39.5 points per game—the most he's averaged during any four-game win streak in his career—on 51 percent shooting.

"I say it all the time, he's the best offensive player I've ever seen," Paul said. "Like, seriously. He can drive, he can shoot, he's got ball-handling. So it's going to be a tough night for youwhoever it is. I don't care what you're doing."

Rudy Gobert, the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year, saw firsthand how determined Harden is to lead Houston back to last season's success.

With 4:32 left in the third quarter, Harden dribbled around Donovan Mitchell, drove the lane and punched it over a leaping Gobert with his right hand.

He then went right at the 7'1" rim protector two more times, scoring on a pair of crafty layups.

"The lane was open," Harden said. "All night the bigs were taking away the lob, so I had to get to the rim and finish it."

The only rub is his extended minutes. He played a game-high 41 minutes against the Jazz, while his regular-season average is 36.3.

Even in their quest to reclaim their identity as an elite team vying for a championship, the Rockets don't want to find themselves in a situation where they're overworking their superstar.

Harden, though, has learned to manage his own minutes as part of his evolution as a franchise player.

"I am always on the go, always aggressive for the most part," he said. "But throughout the course of a game, you figure out what works and what doesn't work. And some things you put in your back pocket. So when it's late in the game, if you get those opportunities, you can capitalize on them.

"It's a game within a game. You gotta figure out what works for you. It takes patience; it takes understanding the game. A little bit of everything."

As dismal as the Rockets' outlook seemed just a month ago, they are still only five-and-a-half games out of first place in the West. Harden is the undisputed alpha, but they'll need more from CP3 if they really want to shake things up.

For December, the nine-time All-Star is only averaging 12.3 points on 33.7 percent shooting. He's also shooting 28.6 percent from behind the arc.

Last year, Paul was a reliable second option, putting up 18.6 points per outing. This year, he fell to third behind Clint Capela at 15.8. Until Paul returns to form, Houston will have to continue to rely on Harden to stuff the stat sheet.

"That dude's just been playing," Gordon said. "I haven't seen too many guys like that. What he's been doing over the past couple of weeks, I haven't seen too many players do that. So it's definitely amazing and definitely fun to watch."

        

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.