Storyline: Harden-Paul Dynamic

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The two were seen getting into it on the court near the end of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, which TV cameras picked up. Words were exchanged, and it was clear that neither was happy with the other. And now, according to a report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, we know what was allegedly said. “Chris barked at James, and James turned to him — this was described to me by a player who was on the court — and he said, ‘With you it’s always f—ing something,’” Windhorst stated.

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Does the way he’s wired still help the group? PJ Tucker: I don’t see how it can’t (help the group). I can’t be around somebody who wants to win like that and not want to win. So if you can’t do that, then this might not be where you need to be, because that’s the stuff you need to be able to win. I wasn’t (sweating the recent reports). I ain’t talking to nobody, because I know. I live it every day. There’s nobody on our team together more than me and James and Chris, so why would I sweat it?

On Wednesday, Fox Sports 1 host Skip Bayless repeated a false claim tweeted by a parody account stating that NBA star James Harden stormed out of several Houston Rockets practices in tears after his teammate Chris Paul mocked his “manboobs.” With Harden and Paul’s “unsalvageable” relationship being the focus of sports media this week, a parody Twitter account posing as ESPN’s top NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that sources say Paul had insulted Harden’s figure.

The report cited Paul’s frustration with the offense and a push for more ball movement and off-ball actions, a la Golden State. But Paul isn’t the only one. Several members of the team expressed similar opinions throughout the year and into the offseason, including Eric Gordon’s frustration after a blowout loss in Utah, and continuing with Austin Rivers’ appearance recently on First Take. Per team sources, those complaints have been heard and management has discussed a system that involves less isolation basketball and more ball movement heading into next season. Speeding the game up and looking for easier baskets was also brought up in conversations, per a team source.

For what it’s worth, Houston doesn’t see this as a real problem. One source harkened back to the Dwight Howard days, for a real broken and dysfunctional relationship. “There will always be tension when you’re trying to get shit right,” cited one team source. “Every aspect of basketball gets debated at some point, and the way we lost sucked. “We’ve had players (in the past) who didn’t care about anything other than themselves and wanted everyone else to shore them up. We don’t see (Harden/Paul tension) as a big deal.”

Asked if Paul or his representatives had asked that he be traded, Morey said, “No. Can you convey my disdain in my ‘no.’ It’s so annoying at this point. “I’ve talked to Chris since (they were eliminated by the Warriors), for sure. Myself, Mike D’Antoni, James Harden are all super competitive, all frustrated we were eliminated from the playoffs, all want to get over the hump. That leads to a lot of competitive fire. All of it is normal. We’re all in the same boat, pursuing the championship. We’re all frustrated we’re not there. But there is nothing past that.”

Harden’s ball-dominant style and unwillingness to give others like Paul space to operate have grated on Paul, leading to the nine-time All-Star issuing his trade demand to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey after the season. Sources said Paul would curse at head coach Mike D’Antoni about the offense bogging down after Harden would ask to come into the game to join the second unit, with Paul heading to the bench. “It can’t be fixed,” another league source told Yahoo Sports about the Harden-Paul partnership.

Harden, by nature, tends to avoid conflict but was pushed hard enough to snap back at Paul from time to time. That’s what happened during the Rockets’ elimination loss, when, team sources said, Harden told Paul he didn’t always know best and had talked too much. “Chris has a personality where he just doesn’t let anything go,” a team source says. “He just keeps pestering and pestering and pestering and pestering. Sometimes James has had enough — and not just him. That’s what makes [Paul] a winner and also what keeps him from being a big-time winner. He’s got to temper that.”

But Harden and Paul had tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Sources said the verbal exchange between Harden and Paul was regarding the ball distribution throughout Game 6. By the time the remainder of the locker room was ready to talk, Paul and Harden had gone their separate ways, with Paul swiftly making his way to the postgame podium. The Rockets dispensed with exit interviews this year, so the media hasn’t been able to ask Paul or Harden about the disappointment.

The Houston Rockets point guard says it’s his teammate, reigning MVP James Harden, who sits on the proverbial throne when it comes to offensive talent. “I say it all the time, he’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Paul said following Houston’s 102-97 win over Utah on Monday night — a game in which Harden scored 47 points and hit 15 of his 16 free throws. “Like, seriously. He can drive, he can shoot, he’s got ball handling. It’s going to be a tough night for you, whoever it is. I don’t care what you’re doing.”

Chris Paul and James Harden, both survivors of superstar marriages that either crumbled or expired, spoke last spring about ways to help each other. Harden could demonstrate the benefits of a modern offense; Paul could share defensive expertise. By taking turns with the ball, they’d sacrifice stats but potentially extend seasons and careers. “They broke down situations,” says Irv Roland, a trusted Rockets player development coach who has trained Harden since he was 19 and Paul since he was 20. “‘I’ll get the ball inbounds, you take off and I’ll kick ahead to you. Will you be O.K. with that?'”

“That’s always a risk,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’ve talked about it. Everybody understands the importance of winning. In the long run, that’s what it’s all about. There will be days. Everybody gets grumpy. That’s a normal part of the job process. I think [Chris Paul and James Harden have] bought in. They know that’s how it’s going to be. Maybe you only get 28 minutes. Maybe you only get 15 when you used to get 20. Trevor Ariz playing 35 minutes a game, you might play 30. Some days, they may be grumpier than others, but basically, they’re good guys. They want to do what is best for the team.”

The Rockets cited their defensive lulls and pointed out that they will face a greater challenge in Memphis on Saturday. But they had brought Chris Paul back without a hitch, showing signs of what they can be if they can put all of their wealth of talent together. “He looks really good on the court,” Harden said. “Obviously, he looks comfortable. The more he gets his wind back and gets more minutes, he’ll get even better. “I think that’s how we’ve been all year, that happiness of wanting to compete for each other. Obviously, he brings that extra excitement. Once he gets back full healthy and Luc (Mbah a Moute, who was out with an illness) comes back and we have that full roster, we’ll ride it out and see how good we can be.”

Nothing changed. No adjustments. No feeling-out process. Perhaps Rockets guard James Harden might have had to tweak things a bit had Chris Paul not been hurt in the preseason, limiting him to one game in the first few weeks of the season. But Harden has generally run the Rockets’ offense as he has since Mike D’Antoni put him at point guard last year and turned him loose. “My approach is try to be the best player on the court every single night no matter who is on the court,” Harden said. “My approach won’t change. Obviously, I have to get better at certain things, whether it is defensively or offensively. Other than that, just try to be the best I can be. That never changes.”

Kevin McHale: “I’m not sure about that duo, yet, because when James Harden first came into the league, he played off the ball as the sixth man in O.K.C. You guys brought him to Houston, put him on the ball. Now, Chris Paul, his whole career, he’s been a guy that’s on the ball. James Harden had his best year last year playing on the ball – one of those guys is going to have to get off the ball, which one? I think Chris Paul is too small to be coming off screens so you’ve got to put him back on the ball which puts James Harden to his original position – is he going to pout, is he going to play? I’m not sure if I’m confident in that duo, yet. Time will tell.”

Paul seemed to enjoy himself. He was his most effective in his familiar playmaker role, but either way, he was at ease, as if the adjustments had already been made. “It felt natural,” Paul said. “We played a lot this summer. I think that helped a lot, talking about communicating, stuff like that. I got to fill the wing a couple times. It’s cool. It’s good. It’s great. You do what you have to do on the given team you’re on. I’m enjoying this. It’s too much fun, man. I’ve always said: I can get somebody an open shot. Guys are better shooters when they know coach won’t yell at them. They come off firing.”

“They’ll be great together,” Nenê said of Harden and Paul. “It will be an unbelievable experience to play with James and Chris. James is the best offensive player in the game and Chris is an amazing ball player as well. They can score from anywhere on the court and they both have a basketball IQ that’s off the charts. “When they have the ball, nobody will know what they’re going to do. That just makes my job, and my teammates’ jobs, a lot easier.”
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July 18, 2019 | 3:25 am EDT Update
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