Posted Feb 17, 2013 10:55 AM
HOUSTON -- Practice had been over for about 20 minutes when the door opened behind the Rockets' training room and a figure wearing just a pair of shorts and a towel on his head strode straight into the 50-degree water of the cold-splash pool.
"Yeeeooooooowwwwwwwww!" bellowed James Harden, hopping up and down and shivering through his beard.
"I'm telling you, man. This is the way to do it. Don't stop and think about it. Just jump right in."
Harden, of course, knows about making a splash. Less than 96 hours after what was the most surprising NBA trade in the past decade, he was dropping 37 points on the heads of the Pistons. Two nights later, he hit the Hawks with 45.
"On one hand, I was kind of in shock about how fast everything happened," he said. "But looking back, that was the best thing, really the only way that I could have handled it right.
"There was no time for me to reflect or evaluate or think about all the changes and what it would all mean for my career, for my life. I mean, everything about how I fit in on my team changed overnight and all I could do was rely on my basketball instincts and let it flow."
Harden has flowed like a river after a spring rain since making the move from Oklahoma City to Houston. There haven't been enough sand bags to stop him from running up over the banks.
He went from a sixth man role player who averaged about 26 minutes per night in three seasons with the Thunder to often grinding out 40 minutes in games while building, loading and pulling the Rockets' wagon. He hasn't blossomed so much as exploded like a stick of TNT, suddenly finding his name in the grouping with Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James on a list of the league's unstoppable scorers.
"There were so many things that I heard when the trade first went down," Harden said. "People asking, 'What's James gonna do now? Can he really handle being the focal point of a team?'
"Then I had those first two games and I was getting texts and messages: 'Way to go, James! Knew you could do it.'
"You hear it and try to block it all out. You always believe in yourself and you think you can do it. But you don't really know until you have to."
The history of the game is littered with the wreckage of players who were given the chance to make the jump from key reserve to full-time starter and couldn't get across the chasm. When back problems began to slow Larry Bird in the second half of his career, Rockets coach Kevin McHale went from being a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner with the Celtics to the main focus of the offense and an All-NBA first teamer in 1987.
"It's real hard just because everything changes," McHale said. "The defense is more in tune to stopping you when you go from being third on the scouting list to first on the scouting report. The other team usually has one or two top defenders, normally a really good wing defender and you've got them on you for 40 minutes instead of 10-12 minutes, and then second defenders. As far as the defenses go, there's a myriad of things. You get everything thrown at you and it doesn't stop.
"All those things that happen physically also make it harder mentally. It's just so hard to go out there in this league and do what James is doing every night."
In the first 55 games of the season, he's scored 30 or more points 16 times. He's been the team's leading scorer 40 times, including in 20 consecutive games (Dec. 12-Jan. 16), which ranks as the second-longest such streak in Rockets history behind Moses Malone's 23-game run in 1981-82.
As defenses have concentrated on him more, Harden has made subtle adjustments. His passes, his shots, his decisions have to come quicker. He must trust that if the ball moves the way it should in the Rockets' offense, it will come back to him at the right time and place.
He can and will pull up and stroke the 3-pointer, but he's made getting into the paint and all the way to the rim -- his arm and the ball tantalizingly extended -- a trademark as much as his beard. Harden leads the league by far in three-point plays.
"Carmelo and LeBron are bigger guys who can get to the basket and get fouled," McHale said. "Derrick Rose protects the ball and absorbs the body blows. But James just has a unique ability to extend it out there and stay under control."
Harden shakes his head and laughs.
"I do challenge people," he said. "A lot of guys are tempted with me putting the ball out. They think they can steal it. If they don't, it's gonna be a foul. But I understand why they do it. It's right there. I have no idea where that came from. I just picked it up one day and it stuck."
His teammates see him every day and yet Harden continues to pull out surprises.
"He's taking good shots, he's getting to the rack, he's getting free throws -- he can hurt you in so many different ways it's incredible," said Chandler Parsons. "I'll tell him during the game: 'You're ridiculous.' I'll literally look at him and be like, 'You're coldblooded.' "
As much as the overall numbers, it's the level of production at crunch time that has increased dramatically. Harden scored 18 points in the fourth quarter of the Game No. 2 win in Atlanta, 17 in the fourth quarter to win at Minnesota and 16 to lead a near-comeback just last week at Miami.
At OKC, Harden had his games and his moments, but his role usually gave way to the resident stars Durant and Russell Westbrook.
"Responsibility," he said. "It feels good.
"You know, if things had worked out, I would have been in that role in Oklahoma City, we would have been winning a lot of basketball games and put ourselves in that championship contender category for many years.
"I was definitely comfortable in that role on that team. No question, I would been there and been happy there in that role, in that scenario, for my whole career. I'm about winning and the thing was I had spent the whole summer with Kevin and Russell as part of the Olympic team and that's all we ever talked about. We didn't get the job done in The Finals last year and we knew the things we would have to do to get back there and finish it. It's a great friendship, a great relationship and it made for a great team.
"Then one day -- Wow! -- I'm here. I still talk to those guys, text with them. I watch and see what they're doing and, yeah, I'd be closer to that championship goal if I was there.
"But I also went through the building process in Oklahoma City and know how it can be done and I think about what it would feel like to do it here with me in this role."
To that end, the Rockets need Harden to be more than a one-man show, spectacular as it's been. The plan is for him to be the foundation to what general manager Daryl Morey is trying to build, the bait that can land another whopper, or even two, through free agency. So Harden's efforts in keeping the Rockets in the playoff race is critical.
"Look, we all know that one star player isn't enough to win a championship," Morey said. "But you have to start with the first one and I think James has demonstrated that he's the real thing, the kind of guy other guys want to play with."
Morey isn't likely to pull the trigger at the trade deadline just to make a move. The Rockets will have the salary cap space to sign a max contract player -- hello, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul -- and still make another significant addition. Andrew Bynum, David West and Josh Smith are among other names who could be available.
Harden admits that he's done some preliminary work as a pitchman as he's worked his friendships and contacts this season.
"No names, but I've talked to guys," he said with a grin. "They listen."
And they clearly can see. For someone who used to be part of the chorus behind Durant and Westbrook, he's fit into the role of leader, team-builder and recruiter as comfortably as a custom-tailored suit. Yet he admits there are still nights when he sits at home alone and has a hard time grasping how much has happened, how much has changed, so quickly.
Add his first time as an NBA All-Star this weekend in his new hometown of Houston to this serendipitous journey.
"How about that?" Harden said shivering, and it's unclear if it's from the thought of what's happened or the cold water. "I never took the time to imagine or envision any of it."
He just jumped right in.
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