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No rest for James Harden in MVP-caliber season

The Rockets point guard is leading or near the top in both scoring and assists while starting every game

CHICAGO — When James Harden went down hard late in the first quarter Friday night at the United Center, his head bobbed up momentarily next to the basket stanchion, his face – or what you can see of it behind that beard – contorted in pain. Then he lay back down on the baseline, seemingly bound for a light-duty night whether he liked it or not.

A few moments later, though, Harden was up, testing the ankle he’d just rolled. He re-tied his shoe. His limp vanished and, well before he re-entered the game against the Bulls at 5:50 of the second quarter, it was clear he’d keep playing.

Harden has the ankles of a roller derby queen and, in this era when MVP candidates stack up “rest” DNPs as if they’re gold stars, the diligence of a day laborer. If he won’t tap out of an otherwise hum-drum game in March when he has a ready, uncomfortable excuse, Harden isn’t likely to sit out when he’s otherwise healthy.

“I can’t afford to take nights off,” Harden said after scoring 19 points with 13 assists in the Rockets’ blowout victory over the Bulls. “That’s not what I get paid for. Obviously the money isn’t a factor, but I love playing the game of basketball. And quite frankly, I won’t be playing forever. So I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity while I’m here. I love being out there on the court helping my teammates and laying for the Houston Rockets.”

Too bad Houston wasn’t one of the teams in ABC’s game Saturday night, populated by a lot of not-ready-for-prime-time players for Golden State’s resting Warriors and San Antonio’s always-understudy-friendly Spurs.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr announced Friday that Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala would be sitting out what had been considered an important game between the Western Conference rivals. Kevin Durant already was scratched while rehabbing from his knee sprain and shin bruise.

Meanwhile, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard entered the NBA’s concussion protocol Friday and would be unavailable, just three days after being given one of those increasingly fashionable “DNP-rest” nights by coach Gregg Popovich.

Of the league’s top MVP candidates this season, only Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Harden have appeared in all of their teams’ games. That’s a nod to necessity – the Thunder and the Rockets would be lost without their stars – and it’s a tribute to their natures as players. Westbrook has a motor that would wear out a hummingbird, while Harden loves to play, feels an obligation and acts like a dog afraid someone’s going to take his bone.

“First of all, I don’t think I could get him to go out of a game … I think he takes pride in playing all the games.” 

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni

“First of all, I don’t think I could get him to go out of a game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said Friday. “He loves to play and he just won’t do it. I think he takes pride in playing all the games. Whether that’s good or not … he’s 27 years old and he feels good. So until he needs rest – and that comes from doctors and trainers and him – and I haven’t heard any of that at all.”

Harden is leading the NBA in total minutes played for the third consecutive season. He has logged 8,511 minutes since the start of 2014-15, with only Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins (8,192) and Rockets teammate Trevor Ariza (8,057) breaking 8,000 and – per – only four others within 1,000 minutes of him. He has missed just one regular-season game in the past three seasons and that came via suspension (for kicking LeBron James in the groin March 1, 2015).

D’Antoni has shaved Harden’s minutes per game from 38.1 to 36.4 this season, but the idea of whacking 48 in a single night hasn’t come up. “I’m not really into that school of resting guys unless they need it,” the Rockets coach said. “Mostly down the stretch [of the season]. Maybe resting him in February affects how he is in April, I don’t know.

“We do Nene and we do Eric Gordon every once in a while. It depends on the individual. James is remarkably resilient. He loves to play and he wants to play. I think if I went in and told him he needed to rest tonight, I wouldn’t get very far.”

In D’Antoni’s system, with Harden playing this season as the team’s point guard and primary offense creator, the Rockets are crazily dependent on him. And he has delivered, averaging 28.9 points (third in the NBA), 11.2 assists (first) and career-bests of 7.9 rebounds and a 27.5 player-efficiency rating. He leads the league in win shares (12.6) and, for all the criticism Harden has earned at the defensive end through the years, his ratings of 118/107 are near his career average.

Durability and availability are part luck, sure, but also products of physical preparation and mental discipline. Those are attributes not always apparent behind Harden’s shake ‘n’ bake game.

“He has a work ethic that I didn’t know he has,” Houston newcomer Lou Williams said. “Just the way he goes, the way he prepares for games, the way he leads these guys. I never heard a lot about his work ethic, but seeing it up close and personal is impressive.”

Said D’Antoni: “A lot of it’s natural stuff. The way he plays – he plays low to the ground and doesn’t get knocked to the ground that much. He’s just remarkable in that aspect. I think he’d play the whole game. There are times he looks at me and say, ‘I’m not tired.’ I say, ‘I know. But you’re only going to play 36. That’s what we want.’ “

Among the top four MVP candidates, Westbrook has been unleashed in this season after Durant’s departure. James is doing his usual all-around heavy lifting for Cleveland. Leonard has taken an evolutionary step up in responsibility for the Spurs. But Harden’s improvement has been revolutionary. He is playing the point full-time for the first time in his eight-year career and his season-over-season bump in assists – from 7.5 to 11.2 – is rare enough, never mind more than doubling his career average (4.9) prior to 2016-17.

Asked what stands out about Harden as a point guard, teammate Ryan Anderson said: “His ability to read defenders and to read the entire defense, essentially. I’ve played with some really good point guards who can feel the flow of the game, pass-first guys who can do that. But James is a guy who can do that and also know when the right time for him to score is also. We trust his decision-making. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know if there have been many guys like that.”

Harden still has an outside chance to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists, something done previously by only Nate (Tiny) Archibald in 1972-73. Through Friday, he trailed Westbrook by 166 points and led Washington’s John Wall by 67 assists overall. Playing in D’Antoni’s higher octane system has generated more opportunities for both but so has Harden’s growing feel for his spot.

“I didn’t know how difficult it is to be the point guard – until you’re really in it,” Harden said. “I’m turning the ball over at a high clip (5.8 per game), which everyone knows. But I’m still getting adjusted to the position.

“It happens. We’re winning. Mike came to me before the season and told me, ‘If as a team we have 13 turnovers and you have eight of ‘em or nine of ‘em, ‘cause you have the ball in your hands 90 percent of the game, then that’s a good game for us.’ So I don’t really worry about turnovers – I just go out there and try to make the right play, try to get guys involved and play my game.”

Boiled down to its essence, Harden’s role with the Rockets is not unlike James’ with the Cavaliers – minus a couple other All-Stars. He’s not as overt in setting up teammates early in each game but he does seek them out more than he ever did before.

“He’ll get Trevor the ball if he needs it,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll get Clint [Capela] the ball. He makes sure he distributes the ball and scores at the same time. That’s probably his thing we talk more about, is him staying right in the middle in the sense of, how much you score and how much you help your team. You’ve got to do both. It’s a fine line.”

Forty times this season, Harden has had at least 20 points and 10 assists in a game, just missing his 41st Friday – that’s the most since Magic Johnson did it 42 times in 1986-87. The Rockets are 28-12 in those games and are on pace to win 56 games overall, which would be a 15-game improvement from last season’s 41-41.

And in this season of triple-doubles, Harden has 15, six more than in his first seven seasons combined. Westbrook is chasing the ultimate Oscar Robertson mark of averaging a triple-double over a full season, but Harden’s isn’t too shabby either: he’s trying to join the Big O as the only players in NBA history to average at least 28 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds (Robertson did it four times).

Harden is doing it, too, by showing up, which Woody Allen famously said is 80 percent of life. Just as D’Antoni and the other Rockets appreciate that he’s MIA among the MVP DNPs, some of the folks filling out ballots likely will reward it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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