And So It Begins

James Harden sets the tone as Rockets open training camp
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - If any ambiguity remained regarding the Rockets’ dreams and ambitions heading into the 2013-14 season, it was summarily laid to rest when the team’s players and coaches opened training camp with a huddle and a simultaneous shout of, ‘One, two, three – championship!” This club is not bashful about its title aspirations and it took what it hopes will be the first step toward the Promised Land Saturday morning with a fast-paced, nearly two-and-a-half hour practice session featuring a heavy emphasis on the defensive end of the floor.

The road to downtown parades requires a total team effort of course, but its best players ultimately must be the ones paving the way. To that end, it was only fitting to see James Harden on the court at 8:30 AM – a full 90 minutes before practice was set to begin – launching one shot after another to a repetitive, hypnotic soundtrack featuring little but the sound of sneakers squeaking and the ball thwack-ing it’s way through the net. The intended message, however, reverberated throughout the Rockets’ locker room: the serious business of winning demands a business model based upon a blue-collar work rate – a point Houston’s All-Star shooting guard made throughout the summer and one he continued to hammer home while going full speed through every practice drill and with his persistent petitions imploring his teammates to do the same.

“I’m just trying to set a tone,” Harden said afterward, “set a tempo for the younger guys and even the veterans on what we need to do to be good this year.”

Harden’s new superstar running mate wasted no time echoing the importance of establishing that industrious attitude and work ethic right out of the gate.

“[Harden] ran the floor hard and pushed himself to the limit and as a leader that’s what you have to do,” said Dwight Howard. “Me and him, we’re on the same page and we understand what we have to do as leaders of this team. We’re going to push everybody to the limit.

“Right now we can’t think about being comfortable. We’ve got to think about how hard we can push each other to get better. That’s going to be the key. We don’t have time to be comfortable. When we start playing, teams are going to be at our neck and that’s what we have to do every day at practice: we have to be at each other’s neck to push each other and make each other better.”

The area in which the Rockets can make the biggest strides – at least based on the results from a year ago – is on the defensive end of course, which explains the heavy emphasis on that side of the ball during the team’s morning workout session (Houston’s players will practice again Saturday night). Head Coach Kevin McHale and his crew put their troops through a crash course in the art of close-outs, deflections, communication, transition and pick-and-roll D, all in an effort to lay the initial foundation for what they hope will be a top-10 caliber defense this season.

“It was all about defense today and teaching everybody the principles and the coverages and things like that,” said Chandler Parsons. “That’s the mindset that we’ve got to come into every single night with, being prepared to win games when we’re not shooting the ball and scoring. Definitely defense is going to be a priority this year.

Added Jeremy Lin: “We want to make sure the guards fight over the screens a lot more and I think there’s going to be a lot of support from the lower end so our bigs might not chase out as high up because they’re primarily big-time rebounders and shot blockers. They’re going to try to stay in between the ball-handler and the rim at all times.”

Of course, schemes and strategies are only as successful as the amount of buy-in they receive from the players charged with their implementation and execution. The proof within that particular pudding won’t reveal itself for a while yet. Today was but the first of many steps that must be taken. The biggest takeaway thus far: Houston's best players are saying, and more importantly doing all the right things in their early efforts to lead this team on the way to the destination of its dreams.