Storyline: Harden-Paul Dynamic

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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?'”

“We ask so much of James Harden, and that’s why we went out and got Chris Paul,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Because James was making every determining play, and he gets tired. Anybody would. So there are moments where he’s completely overloaded, and he has a turnover. And now, we can take all those plays away from him — when he’s making, instead of 50 decisions, let’s say 40, or 30. It’s 30 without being tired decisions. That’s huge.”

“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 19, 2018 | 7:03 pm EDT Update