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News And Notes: Back To Work

HOUSTON - Less than 24 hours after seizing the NBA spotlight with an historic debut performance, James Harden and the Houston Rockets returned to the practice floor Thursday afternoon in an effort to solidify their ability to produce an encore showing Friday night against the Hawks.

Yes, the Rockets wasted little time turning the page, knowing full well that their opponents will be digesting as much film as they possibly can in the days and weeks to come in order to devise a game plan capable of slowing Harden and the rest of Houston’s high-octane attack.

The Rockets kept things simple against Detroit – as one would expect from a team that had only practiced together twice since last Saturday’s blockbuster deal – even integrating a few plays from the Oklahoma City playbook in order to help Harden’s transition to the team. And though the Rockets’ offensive scheme isn’t exactly complex to begin with, they know the onus will be on them to add wrinkles here and there in anticipation of the myriad different defensive looks sure to come their way following Harden’s explosion versus the Pistons.

“We’re not going to be able to do what we did yesterday everyday,” said Jeremy Lin. “We’re going to hit some walls and so it then becomes like a chess match where we have to start figuring out how to counter their counters.

“As the season goes on, our first option, we’re not going to get that anymore. And against really good defensive teams we’re not going to get the first or second option. So it’s about developing that chemistry and movement to be able to get swing-swing, pass-pass combinations, or pass-cut combinations and then be able to break the defense down over a period of time.”

Head Coach Kevin McHale knows teams will waste little time blitzing Harden as he attempts to navigates the pick-and-rolls through which he maneuvers so adroitly, doing anything and everything in an effort to get the ball out of his hands. Of course, committing multiple defenders to neutralizing Harden should open up opportunities for the other four players on the floor, making it imperative for the 23-year-old to make quick, precise reads in order to create odd-man situations in the Rockets’ favor.

“Normally the first pass out of the blitz is the start of where you want to go and it’s the second pass or second drive after that that really exploits (the defense). I told him, ‘If you’ve got two on you you’ve done your job.’

“He’s just a tremendously gifted young man and he’s going to just get better and better but he’s also going to draw more attention so we’ve got to figure out as coaches and players how we can give him more room and help him continue to really shine out there.”

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It’s hard to fathom what a whirlwind week this has been for the Rockets’ new star. Five days ago he was preparing to open the season with the Oklahoma City Thunder and now he’s the toast of not just Houston but the nation, with media outlets like ESPN and TNT clamoring to have him appear on their network programming in the wake of his 37-point, 12-assist destruction of Detroit.

Laid back, relaxed and reserved by nature, Harden seems largely unfazed by the sudden crush of attention, choosing instead to keep the focus on helping his team achieve its goals by striving for constant improvement every day.

“I feel blessed to be in this position,” Obviously I’m doing something right so I just have to be humble about it, stick to what I’ve been doing and take it for what it is, and focus on what I have to do to be a better basketball player every single day.”

If that sentiment sounds strangely familiar, it’s likely because it comes straight out of the Kevin Durant approach to handling the responsibilities of superstardom. Harden obviously has a long way to go in order to reach the dizzying heights his former teammate has already ascended, but it’s clear he’s adopted that same work-hard, team-first, blue-collar mentality that has gone a long way in making Durant one of the most beloved players and teammates of his generation. That Harden has also assumed that mindset comes as no surprise since it’s no secret he and Durant are very tight, with the Thunder superstar even checking in to congratulate his good friend following Wednesday night’s performance.

“Kevin texted me and told me, ‘Way to hoop. Way to go out there and play basketball.’ Coming from Kevin, that meant the world to me. That’s what a brother would do.

“I learned a lot from those guys,” said Harden of Durant and Russell Westbrook. “Every single game and every single practice they prepared themselves to be great. It doesn’t just happen in the games; it’s how they prepare themselves mentally in practice to prepare for the games, I learned a lot from those guys but not just those two but other guys on the team, from Eric Maynor to Nick Collison – everybody on that team showed me something that can help me as a person and as a basketball player.”

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Also noteworthy Thursday was the return of Patrick Patterson to the practice floor, generating optimism that he’ll be able to make his return to the starting lineup Friday night when the Rockets face the Hawks in Atlanta.

“Patrick has always been such a bright young player,” sais Kevin McHale. “He really knows how to play; he’s got really good instincts. He’s got a different understanding than some of our young guys ... He’s a tremendous pick-and-roll defender from the big spot, showing and knowing when to get back. Greg Smith is really turning into a really good pick-and-roll defender, too.”

Ah yes, about Greg Smith. The second-year forward out of Fresno State has really turned heads in recent days with a strong finish to the preseason schedule and an equally impressive opening night debut as well. Smith scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds during 17 productive minutes off the bench before having to leave the game with a strained left foot. The injury does not appear to be serious, however, with Smith saying he expects to be good to go in time for Friday’s game.

And from the “No duh” files, fans will not be surprised to hear that the 21-year-old forward thoroughly enjoyed sharing the floor with Harden Wednesday night, as Smith was on the receiving end of several spectacular passes, one of which he turned into a thunderous fourth quarter dunk that brought every single one of Houston’s players off the team’s bench in jubilation.

“James just told me to set a screen,” said Smith, “and roll to the basket and one play later, that’s what I did and sure enough there was the ball, right in my hands – all I had to do was dunk it.

“It’s like playing with a guy who’s been in the league for 10 years. It’s so great playing with people like that because you can learn so much from them.”