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Q&A With James Harden

Rockets' All-Star discusses defense and the big goals he has for himself and his team

HOUSTON - It’s a tradition. Every August and September we try to catch up with the team’s players to find out what they’ve been up to as they unwind from the season before while simultaneously ramping up for the campaign to come. Last month Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman provided an exclusive look at Dwight Howard’s workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, and caught up with sharpshooting rookie Isaiah Canaan and assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Thus far this month has found rookie Robert Covington, point guard Patrick Beverley, lead assistant coach Kelvin Sampson, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin in the spotlight.

Taking their turns in the hot seat today: Dwight Howard and James Harden.

JCF: Watching you this week, one of the things I’ve noticed is that it looks like you have more bounce than we’ve seen from you in the past.

JH: Yeah, I’ve worked on a lot of conditioning, just different types of training to where I can play and be active for 40-plus minutes a game if that’s what my team needs from me. I’ve just tried to stay active. I think that’s one of the biggest things I want from my game is to be able to stay strong and ready to go at all times.

JCF: I’ve always been impressed by your core strength – I think that’s such a big part of what allows you to do what you do. Has that always been a big focus in your workouts?

JH: For sure. Core work, I work on it every single day whether it’s with bands or whatever. I want to make sure I’m able to move how I want to move and not have any limitations. The majority of my weight lifting is my core work.

JCF: I saw a quote from you earlier this summer where you said one of your goals is to be the best player in the NBA. What do you feel like you need to do to get into that conversation?

JH: I need to expand my game and win. You look at the best players, their teams are always winning, whether it’s Jordan or Kobe winning championships to LeBron now. So to be the best you have to win games and you have to produce every single night. Obviously it’s not going to come easy, but I’m working hard and I’m shooting for it.

JCF: I talked to Coach Sampson last week and he was talking about how he really wants to see you focus on becoming more of a two-way player. How are you approaching the defensive end this season?

JH: it’s definitely a huge focus of mine. Last year everything was new for me: playing that amount of minutes and having to do so much on the offensive end. My defense was slacking, I can admit that. In my previous couple years in Oklahoma City my defense was very good. So I’m trying to get back to good principles, good habits, and being more solid guarding the ball -- that's what I’m working on.

JCF: I’m sure you heard about the back-and-forth that took place between Kevin Durant and D-Wade on Twitter this week. What was your reaction to that?

JH: I don’t have one. KD, that’s my guy. He said what he had to say and that’s it.

JCF: Speaking of OKC guys, do you feel like there’s a rivalry brewing between the Rockets and Thunder in the aftermath of the trade and a thoroughly entertaining playoff series?

JH: No. It felt like we played each other 12 times last year, but I don’t think of it as a rivalry. It’s where I came from and I’ve got a lot of friends over there, guys who’ve helped me get to where I am in my NBA career. It’s going to be a great battle every time we play each other. We know it’s going to be a tough matchup every time we play them.

JCF: Do you measure this Rockets team against the Thunder given everything they’ve accomplished and everything you hope to accomplish here?

JH: Yeah, a little bit. We have a lot of talent. We put ourselves in a great position last year in the playoffs where if a couple more possessions went our way we might have advanced. We were a good team and with the addition of Dwight that makes us even better. We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to have a great training camp, we’re going to go in humble and just work hard. That approach has taken OKC a long way.

JCF: My first memory of you on that practice court was you walking in there your first day telling everyone to tuck their shirts in and get ready to go to work. I know you’re more of an actions-speak-louder-than-words leader, but do you approach this season any differently now that you have a year in Houston under your belt?

JH: I’ll be even more strict. I’m going to pay more attention to details. I’m focusing on all the small things. I want everyone coming to work prepared and ready to go with their jerseys tucked in, locked in, listening and just working hard. We have a lot of young guys so we have to put more emphasis on it. Older teams, they’ve been in the league a long time so they might have more leeway. But these guys, we need to stay on them so that they’re ready and locked in so that every game, every practice we’re getting better as a team.

JCF: You don’t look like you’re 24-years-old. You don’t speak like you’re 24-years old. Do you feel like you’re 24, or do you still have to remind yourself sometimes that you’re one of these young guys, too?

JH: Yeah, I’ve got to grow up fast. I’ve got to be more mature out here. Things that I would normally do, I can’t do those things any more, whether it’s on the court or off the court. I’m just trying to be a leader; like you said, not just by showing but communication wise as well. I’ve got to work hard and I’ve got to be the best player out there at all times. I need to work harder than anyone. I need to take time to explain things to the young guys. I need to be a leader both by showing them and speaking when necessary, too. I’m still learning as well. But the more I work at it, the better off I’ll be.

JCF: When are we going to see your new shoes?

JH: The first game.

JCF: Do you know what they’ll be called?

JH: I’ll tell you when you see them (laughs).

JCF: Fair enough. Last question: You, Jeremy and Chandler had a very unique pre-game routine last season. Have you guys talked about whether you’ll do something different this year?

JH: We might do something different to switch it up. New year, new excitement. We might add Dwight, too. We’ll see how it goes – I can’t give anything away. We’ll make something up.