Since opening night against the Warriors, who began the season slowly on the defensive end, the Rockets have played relatively few defensive teams. To the Rockets, however, there is an answer for each defensive tactic, with success or failure in their hands, and usually in Harden’s. “Last year I thought he was unbelievable,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know what he is this year. He’s gone up another level.”
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When he is making his step-back jumper, D’Antoni said, “I would say it’s all over. But it’s all over, anyway. The guy is so good offensively, it makes him so much more difficult to guard, if that’s possible. But his efficiency is off the charts. That’s where he’s really good, how efficient he has been. A big part of that is making shots.”
James Harden: After Coach took the job, we immediately got on the phone — talking about what went wrong last season, talking about our roster, talking about changes we could make. Normal intro-type stuff. It was clear he was smart as hell about basketball, but laid back, too. He was asking questions and listening, instead of acting like he already knew everything. I liked his vibe right away. And then before we hung up, he stopped and just said straight up: “Honestly, we need you to be the point guard.”
James Harden: I knew our team was going to be able to fill it up, but a run-and-gun team? It didn’t seem like our style. We were going to have to work the shot clock a little longer to get better shots. Coach’s response surprised me. He didn’t get defensive. He wasn’t even mad. He just told me that I was missing his point. Forget the position, he said. Watching film wasn’t about trying to copy the Suns offense or even about point guard. It wasn’t about a position on the court at all. Coach was talking about sacrificing for something bigger than myself.
Since his breakthrough in Phoenix more than a decade ago, D’Antoni has preached tempo and spacing, with an abundance of picking, rolling and three-point shooting. Harden—a scorer by reputation, a playmaker at heart—is uniquely skilled to execute that playbook. Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”
Harden knew D’Antoni was innovative. But playing point guard? “I was shocked,” Harden said. “But I’ve always been a really good passer and a playmaker. As training camp came along and I started handling it, it came easier. I’m still learning to do it at a high level every single night. You are in control of the ball 90 percent of the game. But it feels good. Guys are getting shots, guys are happy and that’s what matters.”
He knew Harden was talented. But coaches need to know more about their best players in order to trust them. “I’ve never seen him practice before; I’ve never seen how he is on the floor; I’ve never seen if he likes to play,” D’Antoni said. “I’ve never seen all the intangibles you have to have to win a championship, and he’s demonstrated that. He’s taking guys out to dinner; you don’t know that (beforehand). I like that he loves to play basketball, and that, to me, is a key to any great player — they have to, when they come to the gym, they can’t wait to play. And he has that.”
Mark Berman: Mike D’Antoni says @James Harden accepted the transition to point guard “and then taken it to heights I couldn’t even imagine.” #Rockets pic.twitter.com/ryfgxj43GJ
Mark Berman: Mike D’Antoni on @James Harden: “He’s doing things that have never been done.” #Rockets pic.twitter.com/9wzIxZFOMK
“They see the floor extremely well and orchestrate all kinds of things,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They probably have in their head better plays than we can diagram so you give them a long rope to play the game and you trust them totally. He is one of the rare, few guys that by himself influences every game. Like James does, Chris Paul does.”
As much as Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has praised the play of guard James Harden, he said a large part of the success goes back to before the season started when Harden quickly took to D’Antoni’s style and his role. “If he doesn’t buy in to how I would like to coach, then obviously we’re not made for each other,” D’Antoni said. “From day one, he’s embraced the point guard role. He’s done everything humanly possible to make us a good team and our record reflects that. That’s the whole key. Ownership, management, your star player – they have to buy in.”
Sirius XM NBA: Mike D’Antoni on James Harden offensive ability: “He is one of the best pick & roll players I have ever seen” @Houston Rockets
In the end, this is why the Harden-D’Antoni relationship has to be at the core of the Rockets’ season. For D’Antoni’s system to flourish, it needs Harden to be the engine. Looking back in Los Angeles and New York, D’Antoni has told The Vertical that he could’ve been more proactive in building stronger bonds with star players Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. He promised himself – and Rockets management – that wouldn’t happen with Harden.
Calvin Watkins: Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said James Harden, who will now become the full-time point guard can be a different version of Steve Nash, who ran the up-tempo seven seconds or less offense in Phoenix. “Sometimes he will be (slower) sometimes he’ll be a faster version,” D’Antoni said. “Steve is not like your traditional jet. Steve had his pace and Jeremy Lin had his pace and guys had their pace and all the point guards I ever coached had their way of doing it and those are very good players. He’ll have his way. I don’t know if we’ll time him, ‘Ok, he’s fast or slow. It will be fast enough to score.”
Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Monday morning that shooting guard James Harden is changing positions. He’s becoming a full-time point guard. “With James you make a joke he’s a ‘points guard’ because he’s going to score some points,” D’Antoni said. Under the new up-tempo offense, D’Antoni has decided to put the ball in Harden’s hands more than last season, like a traditional point guard, to get opposing defenses off him in the half court. It should also allow Harden to become more of a playmaker.
Morey believes that Harden will do that, while benefiting from the D’Antoni hire. “I think the fit is excellent,” Morey said of D’Antoni and Harden working together. “They had a strong relationship from USA Basketball and their basketball philosophies mesh very well.”
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December 16, 2017 | 8:57 pm EST Update
Michael Scotto: I asked Russell Westbrook what reception he expects for Carmelo Anthony. He replied, “I suppose all cheers, in my opinion. He gave all he gave to New York. He’s done an amazing job of representing New York very well. I’m pretty sure the people here understand and know that.”
Jon Krawczynski: Thibs on Crawford working through things: “Everyone has to sacrifice for the team.” Mentioned Dieng, KAT, Butler, Wiggins all sacrificing. “It’s based on the team. The team has to play well.”