Guard says value greater to injury-ravaged Rockets
POSTED: Apr 9, 2015 10:24 PM ET
GameTime: Two Man Race
With the end of the NBA regular season approaching, Steve Smith takes a look at the performances put on by the candidates for the scoring title.
HOUSTON — It's nice to feel the support, but James Harden doesn't need the chants from the Toyota Center crowd on each trip to the free throw line to know where he stands in the race.
At least, not if he were voting.
"I feel as though I am the MVP," Harden said. "I think the MVP is the most valuable player to your team. Obviously you have to be winning and be one of the top teams in this league and we are.
"I'm not taking credit away from anybody else in the league. But I've been consistent all year. I've just been doing the right things to put my team in situations to win, considering all of the different circumstances we've had to deal with."
The choice is more, he believes, than simply choosing his league-best 27.6 points per game over Stephen Curry leading the Warriors to an NBA-best 63 wins.
"I'm looking at all those things put together," Harden said. "Like I said, not taking away from Steph or that team. It's an unbelievable season that they're having. But we're having a pretty good season as well with all the injuries and all that we've been going through this season.
"Look, I understand that people can go either way with it. But for the most valuable player, I think I would have the edge."
While the Warriors have been dominant and won so consistently and so impressively that Curry has often been able to sit on the bench watch during fourth quarters, Harden's burden has never lessened through a season in which the Rockets have lost 171 player games to injury. That's a total topped only by the Lakers and Timberwolves, who'll be wallowing in the lottery while the Rockets are a how-do-they-keep-doing-it 53-25.
In short, it's Harden.
If it wasn't power forward Terrence Jones sitting out the first half of the season with a nerve injury in one leg, it was center Dwight Howard missing a 23-game stretch in the middle of the schedule with a swollen knee. Point guard Pat Beverley was lost for the season with torn wrist ligaments and forward Donatas Motiejunas was the latest to be scratched for good with back pain that might require surgery.
"I don't ever think in terms of how much more do I have to do. But I have thought, 'What's next?' It feels like every other game somebody is going out. Now Motiejunas and Beverley. Those are guys I was playing with for the entire season, because there was no Dwight, there was no T.J. and I had a feel. Now T.J. and Dwight are back and those are the two guys I've got to figure out how to adjust to."
Whether it's filling up the bucket from the opening tip to taking over in the fourth quarter to rescue wins, Harden has poured in points like never before in his career. He's scored 30 or more points 34 times this season, 40 or more 10 times and topped the half-century mark twice. He's had the first three triple-doubles of his career this season while also averaging 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game.
It's that across-the-board ability and his own abundant self confidence that raised eyebrows last summer when Harden told reporters at the World Cup in Spain that he was the best all-around player in the NBA.
"I was surprised at the reaction," he said. "But it was because I hadn't gotten a lot of attention before that. Those other guys — LeBron, K.D. — they had gotten a lot of accolades previously. Obviously, LeBron has won the championship and been the face of the league for years now. K.D. has been the scoring champ multiple times.
"It was me, K.D. and Steph and (reporters) were asking us 'What do you bring to the table?' I think Steph said he was the best shooter in the game, K.D. said the best scorer. I think Anthony Davis said the best shot blocker. I said the best all-around player. That's not just scoring the basketball. It's making plays for my teammates, etc.
"Obviously, I heard different things that different people said. But I just said how I felt. I was confident in it. I didn't feel like it was bragging. All I had to do was go out there and play my game. And, well, that's what I've done."
Harden says it was the experience with USA Basketball when he was thrust into a leadership role after Paul George broke his leg and Durant withdrew from the team, which made this spectacular season possible.
"I think what I was able to do in that learning experience was the key," he said. "Once you're put in a situation and you get comfortable, you're going to succeed in it. Last summer helped me out a lot as far as being a leader. Being around that great group of players and those coaches expanded my game and kind of gave me the confidence to go out there and be great."
A young Tiger Woods and Rory McElroy might have toddled around the house barely out of diapers with their sights set on one day dominating the golf world. But even though Harden is a late arrival to the party of fearsome, unstoppable forces with his Euro-step drives, contortionist moves around the basket and step-back 3-point dagger, he's looking to climb to highest rungs on the ladder.
"I want to be one of the top five players that ever stepped on that court," he said. "That's what drives me, that's what motivates me every single day to get better. I'm at a level now where I've got an opportunity to do it.
"When you're a kid in high school, you're dreaming, but it's far-fetched. Now I'm a lot closer and that's what gives me the confidence to go out there and do my job every night.
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"I wasn't a top recruit. I was nowhere near it. I was one of those guys that were overlooked. I did kind of work my up and build myself up. I've done this the long way, the hard way."
He's done it by leaving the comfort zone in Oklahoma City where he could have stayed tucked into the next with Durant and Russell Westbrook for an entire career. But Harden chose to see how far he fly on his own, even if it's taken him longer than he expected in Houston.
"Now I'm 100 percent comfortable," he said. "The first year I got here, I was shocked at everything. Everything was coming so fast. I was learning how to play. Learning how to play as a leader, as a go-to guy. We ran up against a really good team in the Oklahoma City in that first round in a situation where I think we were just happy to be in the playoffs. Then last year I was comfortable, but I didn't really know my teammates like I wanted to and we lost in the first round again to Portland.
"Now I'm in a position to where there's no excuses. A lot of this is all on me and that's the way I want it.
"It's hurt me personally that I haven't been able to really win here yet. So I've got a lot of anger in me to want to go out there and win in the playoffs. It hurt me to go home early and sit there and watching those other two teams on TV competing in The Finals. That's what's been in the back of my mind all season as well."
As he's taken over more and more of the offense, Harden has taken on more of the responsibility of leadership. In their season of turmoil and churning lineups, he's kept the Rockets moving forward and never losing more than two games in a row at any point.
"It's knowing how to communicate," Harden said. "Knowing how to talk. Knowing how to talk to each and every individual player on my team. Because some can't handle the yelling and the screaming at them. You've got to approach certain guys certain ways. Show them by working hard. In games when teams go on runs, it's bringing the guys together, saying now it's time to make our run. It's all those things. All those things I didn't know in my first two years here. I've been learning and it's paying off.
"I'm not really a screamer. But it happens sometimes. It's part of the job. All the greats did it — M.J., Kobe, all those guys. They got on their team and their teammates responded in the right way.
"I'll take on that responsibility my team. But it's also Dwight's team. It belongs to both of us. We've definitely built a relationship where we can communicate and talk to each other. It belongs to both of us. In order for us to go far, we're both gonna have to play at a high level and both of us are gonna have to be great."
Locked in a battle with the Grizzlies, Clippers and Spurs for the No. 2 seed in the West, Harden says the Rockets can go far.
"We can win it. We can definitely win it," he said. "But we've got to catch a rhythm. With Dwight and T.J. back, if those guys get comfortable, that's the chance we have."
Never mind that Golden State swept the Rockets 4-0.
"We're not gonna back down from any team," Harden said. "They've had a great season, but in the playoffs, it's different. It's a series. I'm sure Dallas, when they were the No. 1 seed and won 67 games, they swept a lot of teams during the regular season as well. But it's all about match-ups in the playoffs.
"We've got a leader. We got a couple leaders. We've got a lot of veterans. We've got a lot of different pieces that we need to take it to the next level. We've got guys with real experience — Jet (Jason Terry) and Trevor (Ariza) and Brew (Corey Brewer). Those guys have won championships, so they know what winning and succeeding and thriving in the playoffs is like, what it takes.
"We haven't had that kind experience since I've been here in Houston, where we've had leaders and other guys that went through the experience of the playoffs and winning. We have a lot of the kind of pieces that win championships."
Not the least of which is the MVP.
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