In the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden has been virtually unstoppable. He’s leading the league in a wide array of statistical categories, he’s broken NBA records that previously seemed impossible such as recording the first 60-point triple-double and, most importantly, he has guided the Rockets to the NBA’s best record (44-13) and point differential (+8.7).
The 28-year-old should feel great about where he and his team stand entering the All-Star break, but he’s quick to point out that the season is far from over and there’s a still a lot of work to be done if he and his teammates want to achieve their only goal: winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“We’ve been playing well, especially as of late,” Harden says, “but we still have a long way to go.”
Harden has plenty of appearances lined up during All-Star Weekend, and he’ll be competing in Sunday’s main event. While All-Star Weekend is technically supposed to be a break for NBA players, it’s actually a very busy 72 hours for the league’s stars. In addition to participating in the on-court festivities, most notable players have a packed schedule that includes business meetings, a ton of appearances, media obligations and much more. For Harden, the “break” will be even crazier. On top of being one of the NBA’s biggest (and most booked) stars, this year’s All-Star Weekend is in his hometown of Los Angeles. That means he’ll have even more places to go and people to see.
While this will be an exhausting couple of days for Harden, he did get some downtime on Friday evening. Microsoft teamed up with some celebrity barbers to create the “Xbox Barber Shop” in a Beverley Hills hotel. Players and celebrities were invited to come in for a haircut and a chance to play some video games to unwind. Harden decided to stop by and play a game of NBA Live 18 to relax for as long as he could before handlers dragged him away.
If there’s any player in the NBA who deserves an actual break, it’s Harden.
The Rockets rely on Harden more than any other team relies on their star. He leads the NBA in usage percentage (36.2 percent), which means he’s constantly asked to make plays when he’s on the floor. And more often than not, good things happen when Houston puts the ball in Harden’s hands.
This season, Harden is averaging 31.3 points, 9.0 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from three-point range (on 10.7 attempts) and 86.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Among all NBA players, Harden is ranked first in points per game (31.3), first in made three-pointers (206), first in made free throws (429), first in player efficiency rating (30.5), first in win shares (11.2), first in box plus/minus (10.9) and first in value over replacement player (5.9).
And it’s not like Harden is putting up empty stats in losses. His strong play has resulted in sustained success for Houston. As previously mentioned, the Rockets have the NBA’s best record (44-13) and the top average point differential (+8.7 points), meaning they’re often beating teams convincingly.
Houston is 2-1 against Golden State, including a road victory at Oracle Arena. They’re 2-0 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, sweeping the season series and winning the second contest by 32 points. They’re 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs, capturing both games by double figures. They’re 2-0 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, winning both contests by 18 points. Combined, that means they’re 8-1 against those four contenders – with a 13-point average margin of victory in those eight wins.
“From a roster standpoint and a performance standpoint, I think this is one of the best teams that I’ve been a part of,” Harden said. “And obviously the goal is to win a championship.”
Harden points out that Houston has been this good despite some obstacles. He mentions the injuries that the Rockets have suffered throughout the course of the year. Chris Paul has missed 18 games, Trevor Ariza has missed 13, Harden has missed seven, Eric Gordon has missed six and Clint Capela has missed five.
But even more impressive is that the Rockets didn’t get off to a shaky start, when that would’ve been completely understandable given their offseason changes and the adjustment period they were going through. Whenever a team adds a focal point, it takes time for everyone to get acclimated. But Paul wasn’t just getting used to a new head coach and learning his new teammates’ tendencies. After playing one way for 12 seasons and experiencing a ton of success, he was being asked to make huge adjustments. He’d be playing alongside another ball-dominant guard for the first time in his career and playing off-ball more than ever before. Paul and Harden had to get on the same page, so that they could make life easier for one another rather than holding each other back. But instead of struggling out of the gate as they figured everything out, the Rockets won 25 of their first 29 games.
Paul is averaging 19.2 points, 8.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 47 percent from the field, 39.7 percent from three and 90.7 percent from the free-throw line. He remains arguably the best traditional point guard in the NBA, and he has helped the Rockets on and off the court.
Still, Harden has a point about Houston’s success despite obstacles. As scary as this is for the rest of the NBA, Houston’s best basketball is likely ahead of them – assuming they get (and stay) completely healthy and their chemistry gets even better.
Entering this season, Harden heard a lot of people doubting that he and Paul could co-exist. However, he says he was confident they’d fit well together from day one.
“When you have two guys who are this talented, with this kind of basketball IQ and with this much desire to win, it was bound to work,” Harden said. “Then, when you factor in all of the guys around us and the fact that we all complement each other so well? [I knew] it would work.”
Not only has it worked, Harden insists that getting acclimated with Paul was easy and they never ran into any issues or disagreements along the way – mainly because both were willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team.
“We really haven’t run across any challenges like that so far,” Harden said. “We’re both so competitive and just want to win. I’m willing to take a backseat to him if he’s got it going and he’s willing to take a backseat to me if I’ve got it going. We know the game of basketball really well, so both of us can see things before they happen. We’re just happy to be playing together.”
“I can’t believe it’s only been half a season,” Harden adds with a laugh. “Man, it feels like we’ve been playing together a long time. Having him as a teammate has been great. It’s been so much fun, and I think everyone can see that. It’s been a joy. It’s exciting for the fans, and it’s exciting for us as we continue to figure this thing out and make it work every single game. We’re in this together.”
Morey recently made two more additions to his already stacked roster, signing Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright after they were bought out. Harden was thrilled when he learned they were joining the team.
“We needed them,” Harden said of Johnson and Wright. “Those are experienced vets who both have playoff experience. And we all want to win – that’s what everyone on this roster has in common. We have a roster full of guys who are hungry and ready to compete at a high level.
“We have really good depth now. We have a roster of guys, from top to bottom, who can step in and really get the job done. That’s exciting, and it also means everyone’s minutes should go down, but our productivity [as a whole] should go up.”
Harden can barely contain his excitement when he’s talking about the roster, and it’s easy to see why: Houston is a legitimate contender and the biggest threat take down the Warriors.
Because he’s leading the NBA’s top team and posting remarkable stats, it’s no surprise that Harden is being mentioned as a top candidate for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. This isn’t new territory for Harden, as he was the MVP runner-up in two of the past three years and the voting was close both times. However, it certainly seems like could be Harden’s year to win the award.
A recent survey of media members by Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post suggests that Harden is a virtual lock to win the award at this point. Bontemps polled 100 fellow journalists, who were asked to pick their five leading MVP candidates. Then, the players were given points based on where they were ranked (10 points for a first-place vote, seven points for second-place, five points for third-place, three points for fourth-place and one point for fifth-place). When the results came in, Harden was on a tier of his own.
Harden received 91 of 100 first-place votes, and every media member had him placed in their top three. Harden finished with 971 voting points. The runner-up, Stephen Curry, had just 466 voting points and received only two first-place votes. If this survey is any indication, this is Harden’s MVP trophy to lose.
But don’t expect him to take his foot off the gas now. He’s worked extremely hard to get here and he’s not about to become complacent.
In fact, he’s of the belief that you have to work just as hard – if not harder – once you reach this point because you have a target on your back when you become a superstar. Every opponent brings their A-game against you, and a ton of ambitious phenoms are doing everything in their power to eventually surpass you.
“This is the best league in the world, and every year there are new guys who come in, who are going to be more athletic and hungrier, so you have to make sure you’re ready [for them],” Harden said. “I learned that very quickly when I was young. When you’re a rookie and you have Russ Westbrook and Kevin Durant on your team and they’re just killing it, you realize that you have to be ready to go. You always have to be getting better and you always have to be learning.”
Knowing Harden’s mentality and hearing him say this, it’s not surprising when he later reveals that the players he’s watching and studying the most this season are rookies. He keeps his eye on the next wave of superstars.
“I just love the game. Period. I can learn from watching any player, whether they’re a superstar or they’re a rookie,” Harden said. “Take a guy like Donovan Mitchell right now, who’s doing things that we haven’t seen a rookie do in a long time. Look at a guy like Ben Simmons, who is out here getting triple-doubles as a rookie. Players like that are pretty dope. It’s not just about watching and studying the big-name stars; I watch everybody.”
Back in the Microsoft hotel suite, Harden picks up his controller and surprises everyone in the room when he chooses to play as the Toronto Raptors instead of Houston.
“The Rockets are too good, so I’m going to run as Toronto because DeMar DeRozan is my guy,” Harden explains with a smile. “When I’m playing at home against my boys, I usually go with Houston.
“There were some years when we weren’t very good in the game, but now we’re pretty lit, so it’s a different feeling to play as the Rockets these days,” he adds with a laugh.
After Harden picks the Raptors, his friend chooses Harden’s former team: the Thunder.
As the two play, Harden answers some questions from fans and tries to relax. But it quickly becomes clear that the six-time All-Star isn’t very good at turning off his competitive switch, even during a friendly game of NBA Live.
He’s frustrated when he doesn’t get calls, he shouts “WE NEED A STOP” during big possessions and he trash-talks throughout the game, which is being streamed online for fans to watch.
Near the end of the first quarter, the game is tied and Harden becomes more intense.
“Okay, I need to lock-in,” Harden says. “This game should not be this close.”
Shortly after, his friend extends his lead to four points and laughs. Harden glares at him.
“I’ve been letting you get stops a little bit too easy,” Harden says. “Watch this.”
He drives down the court with DeRozan, draws a double-team and kicks the ball to Jonas Valanciunas for an easy bucket. “Yeah, it’s over,” says Harden, who’s no longer taking his eyes off the screen.
On several occasions, a barber or nearby onlooker lets out a cheer when the Thunder make a big play or when the lead changes. Without fail, Harden shoots them a death glare. At one point, he even yells at the barber, “Whose side are you on?!”
Judging by how serious he takes this game, it’s safe to assume that Harden has destroyed at least one video-game controller in his life and had quite a few NBA-Live-related arguments with friends.
Harden builds a decent lead and resumes answering questions. But his friend mounts a huge comeback, led by Westbrook, in the final minutes.
The game ends in perfect Harden fashion: The two teams are tied and with three seconds left, Harden gives the ball to his go-to player, DeRozan, and draws a foul while shooting a three.
“NO,” the friend protests. “I’M NOT GOING OUT LIKE THAT!”
Harden, the king of drawing contact, smiles, hits the free throws and sets the controller down. The wins just keep coming this year.
Josh Martin of USA TODAY SMG contributed to this article.
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