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Harden looks for playoff success vs. Texas rivals

Series Preview: Rockets vs. Mavericks

POSTED: Apr 16, 2015 8:51 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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His first chance came two years ago when he arrived in Houston from Oklahoma City almost on the eve of the season opener and James Harden had to hit the ground running.

His second chance came a year ago when Harden came to training camp and met up with the newly-acquired Dwight Howard who was to be his new running partner.

Now it's his third season with the Rockeets and Harden says he's done running, except when it comes to sprinting past the opening round of the playoffs.

"Getting to the playoffs, just reaching the first round and saying or feeling like you've accomplished something, is not the goal," Harden said. "I'm tired of losing in the first round and then having to sit at home and watch other teams play until June. It's just not enough anymore."

Not even when he looks back on a season that has been littered with pitfalls and injuries. Howard sat out roughly a third of the season due to pain and swelling in his right knee. Power forward Terrence Jones missed half the season with a nerve injury in his leg. Point guard Patrick Beverley was scratched with torn ligaments in his left wrist. Backup big man Donatas Motiejunas stepped up gamely to fill the gaps, but then was lost for the playoffs due to back injury that required surgery less than two weeks ago.

"None of that matters," said Harden. "Those are things that are out of our control. All you can do is take the players that are healthy and you have on your team and get the job done. That's been my approach."

Harden's approach has carried him into the thick of the MVP battle with the Steph Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. But more importantly, he's carried the Rockets into an unexpected late rise into the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and now says his team is ready to contend.

"We need big performances out of me and Dwight, no question about that, but there's nobody in this league that I think we have to fear in the playoffs. It's a matter of playing up to our abilities.

Harden freely admits he's fallen down in the postseason the past two years, shooting just 37.6 percent and 39.1 percent in back-to-back first round losses to the Trail Blazers and Thunder.

"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."

As a low seed (8th) a year ago, the Mavericks pushed the Spurs to the seven-game limit in the first round and proved to be the toughest obstacle for the eventual champions..

Having made the high-profile additions of Chandler Parsons and Rajon Rondo, the Mavs have struggled all season to find a sense of direction and chemistry and now come back into yet another edition a different red-hot in-state rivalry as the underdog. But one with a bite.

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Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Which poison would you prefer? The question for the Mavericks right out of the starting gate is whether they'd rather live with James Harden driving to the basket or bombing away over the top? He's the first player in history to have 700+ made free throws and 200+ 3-point baskets.

2. Can Dwight Howard go the distance? The Rockets center has looked strong and active when he's been on the court since making his return from a six-week absence due to swelling and pain in his right knee. But he's played just part-time minutes since getting back on the court and, which means both his knee and his stamina will be tested.

3. Remember me? Mavs starting forward Chandler Parsons would love nothing more than to stick it to his old team, which did not meet the free agent offer sheet he received from Dallas last summer. But he missed the last six games of the regular season with soreness and swelling in his right knee at a time when the Mavs will need all of their firepower.

4. Who's got the bench? Even with injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, give the edge to the Rockets and the production they've gotten from additions Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. The Mavs will need Amar'e Stoudemire to reach into his past for some old magic.

5. Will Mavs play Hack-a-Shooter? During the regular season Mavs coach Rick Carlisle didn't show an inclination for playing the free throw percentage/mind games. But with such abysmal foul shooters as Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Joey Dorsey in the Rockets rotation, it will be hard to resist in the playoffs.

When the Rockets have the ball ...

They make no secret of what they want to do. That's either drive the ball to the basket for layups and dunks or fire away over the top for 3-pointers. The Rockets set an all-time record NBA for 3s attempted and made as a team this season. Harden is the key to everything with his ability to drive and draw fouls, pull up from long range or draw defenses and find the open man. But feeding the post Howard will make everything else easier.

The Mavs have to cut off Harden's penetration and not let him turn the game into an endless parade to the free throw line. The Trail Blazers did it last season by having Wes Matthews keep him out of the paint at all costs.

When the Mavericks have the ball ...

The Mavericks don't play at a breakneck speed, but do want to get the ball in the open court in the hands of Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo to let them make things happen. Dirk Nowitzki

and Ellis can run a mean pick and roll. They have to, because the Mavs are a weak rebounding bunch that ranks in the bottom third of the league in getting the ball off the glass.

The Rockets will need to do a solid job staying in front of Ellis and not allowing him to get into the kind of rhythm that produces big games. They can handle numbers from Nowitzki as long as he doesn't get big help.

In the clutch

There's a reason the Rockets have stayed near the top of the West standings all season and he wears a beard. When the shot-clock or the game gets late, the ball goes into James Harden's hands and he makes something happen.

When you've become a perennial All-Star, MVP of The Finals, already reserved your place in the Hall of Fame and your name is Dirk Nowitzki, you get to take the shot from anyplace on the floor. But Ellis is a good option to have.

Wild cards

The Rockets have two flying wings. Trevor Ariza is a long-armed, fierce defender and 3-point streak shooter. The blade-thin Corey Brewer cuts like a knife at both ends of the floor, jumping in passing lanes and finishing on the break.

Which Rajon Rondo shows up? There's the one who can make a triple-double look as easy as getting out of bed in the morning or the one who appears less than fully engaged in the game.

Prediction

Assuming Howard is healthy, he and Harden are a 1-2 punch that can put the Mavs down. But not until the late rounds. Rockets in 7.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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