HOUSTON (AP) — A couple of months ago, James Harden was told by a reporter that he seemed different this season, a year in which he has gone from a great player to a front-runner for MVP, and was asked what prompted the change.
Houston’s bearded superstar bristled, his eyes narrowed and he demanded: “Different how?”
Harden was reminded of that moment recently and posed the question again. This time, away from the glare of television cameras in a quiet hallway of the arena where he has carried the Rockets to a 48-23 record, Harden leaned against the wall and finally agreed that he is different this time around.
“Focus,” Harden said simply.
“Just more comfortable, knowing my teammates, being comfortable with myself on the court,” Harden said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Knowing how to get shots, knowing how to get my teammates shots, and once I feel comfortable I can worry about doing other things.”
This comfort level in his third season with the Rockets since a trade from Oklahoma City has helped him improve in just about every way. Harden’s averages in points (27.1 per game), rebounds (5.8), assists (7), steals (1.9) and even blocks (0.8) are all career-highs.
Most important to Harden: He has helped keep the Rockets among the top teams in the Western Conference in a year where Dwight Howard his missed 37 games. And the three-time All-Star who is in his sixth year out of Arizona State is a better all-around player a season after being derided for ineffectiveness — or worse — disinterest on defense.
This season, he is 10th in the NBA with 3.7 defensive win shares, which estimate the wins a player brings a team with his defense, up from 2.7 last season. That’s better than the 3.4 given to Trevor Ariza, who is widely seen as a great defender.
“Now I’m able to go out there and dominate a game not just by scoring the basketball,” Harden said. “Whether it’s defensively, whether it’s rebounding the basketball, whether it’s getting 15 assists a night, just being able to dominate a game and figuring out a way to do it, how the flow of the game is going.”
Harden is clearly the face of the franchise — or the beard of it, as evidenced by the thousands of fans who wear fake chin fuzz at home games — though it’s not his style to make sure declarations.
“I don’t really try to put emphasis on this is my team, this is my show,” Harden said. “I let the hard work and I let the communication and the will to go out there and just compete every single night at a high level do all the talking. And I think that’s what helps the guys follow me.”
Harden has wowed fans this year with dozens of nifty plays. He crossed over Ricky Rubio so violently that the Minnesota player crashed to the court before Harden stepped back to swish a 3-pointer. The play prompted Internet memes where a Twister board was inserted beneath Rubio. He had a buzzer-beater for a win over Phoenix in January, and he has shined assist department, once bouncing a pass between Chris Paul’s legs to Corey Brewer, who finished with a dunk.
Harden said his top moment has nothing to do with any of those highlights.
“Just seeing how quick guys came together when Dwight went out,” Harden said. “We have so many injuries this season to where guys had opportunities to step up and they did. So that was probably the highlight, guys stepping up and taking advantage of their minutes.”
While Harden is in the conversation for MVP along with the likes of Golden State’s Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, he he and everyone else agreed the individual exploits do not matter without team success.
“I don’t think he’s out there trying to go out and be the MVP, he’s just playing to win,” Ariza said. “He loves the game, he works hard at his game and he wants to win, most importantly.”
Though Harden is second in the NBA in scoring, he is more than willing to dish to his teammates when he’s being double-teamed or if he’s having an off-shooting night, and is sixth in the NBA with 491 assists.
“When you’re as good as James is it just ends up being a chess game,” coach Kevin McHale said. “You do the same opening and they’ll have some counters for you. So you just got to be able to move and adapt to what they’re doing.”
Before almost every game opposing coaches say the focus is limiting Harden’s free throws — and nearly every night he leads every player on the court in trips to the line. He tops the NBA in both free throw attempts (707) and free throws made (612), over 150 more than second-place Westbrook in both categories.
He has scored at least 30 points in 30 games this season, including eight with 40 or more and he’s had three triple doubles. He scored a career-high 50 points in a win over Denver last week to become the first Rocket to reach the half-century mark since Hakeem Olajuwon put up 51 in 1996.
Houston has had three MVPs, with Moses Malone collecting the hardware in 1979 and 1982 and Olajuwon in 1994. Olajuwon spends a lot of time with the team and is convinced Harden should be the Rockets’ fourth winner.
“You can’t help but be impressed night in and night out,” Olajuwon said. “I watch him at practice, he practices very hard, plays the game the right way, he scores and he’s very durable. So he’s wonderful. He’s definitely an MVP.”
Harden acknowledges that winning MVP is “every kid’s dream,” but insists he tries not to think about it.
“I can control going out there and trying to compete as hard as I can and trying to win basketball games,” Harden said. “I’ll let everything else fall into place and whatever happens, happens.”
Now that Howard is back, Harden is eager to see what Houston can do in the postseason and is confident the Rockets can go much further than last season when they were ousted by Portland in the first round.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Harden said. “We can be the last team standing.”
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