Life, they say, is about timing.
For coach Mike D’Antoni to get that one more chance to capture the magic he’d created a decade ago in Phoenix.
For Houston Rockets star James Harden to take his out-of-this-world combination of talent to unexplored places in the basketball universe.
D’Antoni was searching for another opportunity after attempts in New York and Los Angeles that fizzled.
Harden was in need of a reboot following a season that was statistically sensational and yet, after a 41-41 finish in 2015-16, was substantively unsatisfying.
“Yeah, maybe we came together at the right time. Maybe we needed each other,” D’Antoni said. “Hey, me a lot more than him. You can’t do anything if you don’t have the player.”
Yet for all that Harden had achieved in the prior four seasons, it is D’Antoni’s role as Wernher von Braun joining the American space program that has Houston taking off like, well, Rockets.
A turnaround in Houston
From a 6-5 start to the season to a moonshot 21-4 record since Nov. 16, which has lifted them to a stunning third-best mark in the NBA. From a wild-firing, underachieving amalgam of 3-ball misfits and a roster that appeared connected only by the name on the front of their jerseys to a sharp-shooting, closely-bound collection that actually likes playing together. The Rockets are coming off a 15-2 December that included a 10-game win streak and tied the mark for the winningest month in franchise history.
“I look at it and it is unbelievable,” said Harden. “This season, so far, has been unbelievable. The chemistry, the wins, just the vibe around here, helps us go out on the court and have fun.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in my life just playing basketball,” said forward Ryan Anderson. “From the outside, it might look that Mike just turns you loose and let’s everybody take whatever shot they want, but that’s not the case. We’re all in here knowing what we want to do, knowing that we have to do it together.”
That is the biggest difference that will be on display when the Rockets host the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight at Toyota Center (8 ET, TNT). OKC’s Russell Westbrook with his league-leading total of 16 triples-doubles and season averages of 30.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game is a virtual one-man show where the main event is watching him chase Oscar Robertson and history. On the other hand, Harden, while dominant and in control of virtually everything the Rockets do on offense, is more the maestro leading a symphony. And his numbers (28.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 11.9 assists) are not far behind.
“Look, it’s all only possible because of James and his willingness from the first very day to buy into what I wanted to do here,” D’Antoni said. “It’s easy to sit here now and say that we were some kind of match made in heaven, just waiting for the other to come around. But he is the player and he is the one who had to be accepting, even embracing.
“We’re all on the same page, from the owner to the general manager on down. But none of that matters without James. He has taken on every role I’ve asked of him — teammate, leader, scorer, passer.”
The role of point guard is that main change, putting the ball into Harden’s hands at virtually the start of every possession and letting him dictate what happens next.
“It’s easy to sit here now and say that we were some kind of match made in heaven, just waiting for the other to come around. But he is the player and he is the one who had to be accepting, even embracing.”
Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, on James Harden
“You have guys that are comfortable in certain roles and they’ve made a lot of money in the role that they’ve been in, so it’s hard for them to change or envision doing something different from what they’re doing because what they’re doing obviously was giving them a lot of success,” D’Antoni said. “But he was more than open to embrace it. Not to even hesitate. Not to try show me that it wouldn’t work. A lot of players would be happy to show you why it wouldn’t work to stay in their comfort zone.
“I said, ‘You’re gonna be the point guard’ and he said, ‘Great.’ That sounds simplistic, I know. But that’s more or less what happened. He asked me what I saw that made me want to do it.
“You don’t know until you coach a guy, really. But I would just watch the game and he would run a pick-and-roll from the two-guard. Why can’t he run a pick-and-roll every time? He would see the floor. He’s a willing passer. He averaged 7-8 assists as a two-guard. It’s like, why can’t he be the one? I mean, the ball’s gonna go to him anyway. So let’s cut all the fat out, all the stuff that gets him tired without any results. My biggest mindset was how can we get him to 36 minutes, 35 minutes, a game instead of 40, 42, 39.Then have him fresher at the end of games, at the end of the season and then keep him there at around 36 minutes. How can you do that and get the same kind of production?”
It was never about making Harden better, but using him better. Harden’s minutes are down from 38.1 minutes per game a year ago to 36.6 this season while his production has risen dramatically. Never so dramatically than when his New Year’s Eve fireworks against the Knicks produced a career-high 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists. With eight of his assists leading to 3-point shots by his teammates, Harden accounted for 95 points on the night, second only to the game back in 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 with two assists.
“You’re cutting out areas where he’s not involved directly in the play,” D’Antoni said. “Or you cut out where they face guard him over here or they hug up on him and won’t let him get involved and you just give him the ball.
“Now his responsibility is he’s got to distribute and get the other guys involved and he is willing to do that. Easily. He always did that as a two-guard. Now we’re just giving him a lot more of those opportunities.”
However, D’Antoni’s influence on the super-charged Harden effect cannot be understated.
Coach, player buy-in a ‘two-way street’
“Harden has played a certain way since he’s gotten there and Mike has him playing a little different,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “He has him thinking pass-first and that’s really not what James has been. What Mike made him realize is that he can be a pass-first guy and he’s still going to average 25- to 30-points a game. What it does is it gets everyone involved in the game and not so much standing around.”
“His philosophy, I think, is simple,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “What Mike does offensively is really good. What he does is matches the way this team wants to play.
“You can be Knute Rockne and if they don’t believe in what you’re saying, it’s not gonna work. That’s been proven over the years to be 100 percent.”
On the night last month when the Spurs retired the No. 21 jersey of Tim Duncan, coach Gregg Popovich concluded his remarks by telling his franchise player: “Thank you for letting me coach you.”
It was more than treacly sentiment.
“Buying in is a two-way street,” said Popovich said. “It doesn’t just happen. The onus is largely on us as coaches to put together a strategy in a way of playing that players will buy in. That’s means we have to know who we’re dealing with, what their talents are and all that.
“But a player also has to come down that road a bit and understand and entrust that the coach has an idea of how this group should be playing and hopefully buy in for the good of the whole group. In Duncan’s case, the fact he allowed me to put my strategy on how I wanted to play as a group, how I wanted him to play and he allowed me to do that, even if he didn’t agree with him all the time. We talked about it. But whatever I said in the end, he went with it, very honestly.”
Sometimes that connection is found and established at the start of a career. Sometimes it requires the scars that come from experience. Although Harden had been an All-Star in each of his previous four seasons in Houston, there is a palpable difference about him now. On the court and in the locker room. For three seasons, it was as if Harden was trying to ride the same horse as center Dwight Howard with the two of them unable to share the reins. Howard moped when he didn’t think he got enough touches. Harden went off his did his own thing, even if that meant being disengaged on defense.
“He’s all there now,” said teammate Patrick Beverley. “There’s a light in his eyes that’s brighter now. It burns.”
The Rockets are a different team with better-fitting pieces now. Anderson and Eric Gordon were signed as free agents from New Orleans and are the perfect complements to Harden as shooters.
Gordon, who had been a starter for all his NBA career, has nicely filled a role off the bench to catch-and-shoot passes from Harden when they’re on the floor together or take over as the primary scorer when Harden is on the bench.
“I never thought I would be coming here to Houston to come off the bench,” Gordon said. “But we tried me in the starting lineup for a few games and then Mike talked about doing something different. He never told me to change a thing about the way I play. He wants you to be yourself.”
Confidence king in D’Antoni’s world
What D’Antoni wants most is for his players to move up and down the court without thinking about mistakes or having a sense of foreboding coming from the bench.
“That’s always been a personal thing with me,” D’Antoni said. “One of the reasons I didn’t make it in the NBA — I played 3 1/2 years — and one of the reasons I was in Europe for 20 years was because I lost my confidence. That comes from coaches that are emphasizing the mistakes, taking you out anytime you make one.
“It’s hard to to make it in the NBA. Everybody’s got talent. So what’s the difference between a talented guy who makes it and the type that doesn’t? I’ve found that a lot of the time it’s mental; it’s confidence.
“So without going crazy, I just want to stay where the player feels he’s not looking over his shoulder. Now it still might not work out. He still might be not confident and then you have to make changes. But until you do that, I try to give a player as much confidence as I can.
“That’s from my experience. That might not be for everybody. That might not work for everybody. But I know as a player that I had a coach that did that, he make sure when I got to Europe he built me back up. He gave me confidence and I was a much better player there than I ever was here because of that.
“Some players need it and some don’t. Some have a little too much confidence. But bench players, guys in secondary roles, just need a shot of confidence all the time.”
“He never told me to change a thing about the way I play. He wants you to be yourself.”
Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon
That confidence in his system and what they are doing has kept the Rockets resolute. They might have the most impressive back-to-back games in the league this season, outlasting the Warriors in double overtime at Oakland, then arriving at 5 a.m. in Denver and taking down the Nuggets at altitude the next night. They are 5-8 this season when they’ve trailed by double digits, including their last two games. They even came from 13 down with 2:59 left in the fourth quarter to win in overtime at Minnesota.
Of course, the D’Antoni way didn’t work with the Knicks or Lakers, namely for a couple of reasons named Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, a pair of notorious ball-stoppers that didn’t buy in. There was also an unhappy Howard for a season in L.A.
“Well, yeah, we had a couple people that didn’t want to do it,” D’Antoni said. “We tried, compromised and it just didn’t work.
Hey, put that on me. I’m the coach. It’s my job to make it work.”
Harden’s string of eye-popping performances hat closed out the 2016 portion of the schedule was the first time that any player had four straight games of at least 30 points and 10 assists since Michael Jordan did it in 1988-89. Except for an earlier run by Harden back in November.
The staggering numbers keep mounting, the pile of wins keeps growing and Harden’s reputation, which took a big dent last season, is glowing again.
“It begins with the coach,” Popovich said. “The player has to have the character to understand, at least in the beginning, that we’ll go with the coach’s philosophy and the coach’s vision of your role. After X amount of time, half the season, a season, whatever, it’s not working, well then, maybe you’ve got to renegotiate and talk again. But the player has a responsibility to that whole group, no matter who it is, no matter what his talent level is, to try to understand what’s good for everybody.
“Hey, in the beginning even Michael Jordan had to learn that he couldn’t do it by himself. He had to learn to love to play with John Paxson and Steve Kerr, those other guys around him, the role players.
“Relatively speaking, Harden is Michael of the Rockets.”
While D’Antoni has been the Saturn V booster that’s got them soaring.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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