LAS VEGAS — The “MVP” chants greeted James Harden as he walked out of Mendenhall Center at UNLV following the first practice of USA Basketball minicamp, a serenade that had to feel like a long overdue confirmation of the belief that he hasn’t been shy about sharing. Four years ago, Harden boldly declared himself the best player in the game, refusing to back down from that claim until he turned enough doubters into believers. He held that Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the NBA Awards last month and, with his mother by his side, walked off declaring the one word that has brought him through an unusual journey from sixth man to franchise guy: “Swag.”
“I don’t know anybody else who did it. But that’s just a testament to how many guys out there that are coming off the bench, and not getting as much playing time, that you could still be that guy,” Harden said. “It feels great, all the work that I put in, to be able to hold that trophy up. Obviously, the main goal is to be holding a championship up, but we’re moving in the right direction. We’re taking the right steps.”
Finally able to put aside past snubs, Harden is appreciative of that prestigious recognition — one that essentially books a future reservation into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — but he has quickly turned the page to the next area of his career that remains unfulfilled. “I haven’t even done nothing. That was a good feeling,” Harden said of winning the MVP, “but that feeling that I had in that Western Conference finals, with basically one half to go … I need that feeling back. I’ll try to work my butt off, and mentally lock in as much as I can to get back to that feeling.”
Harden hasn’t been able to get over blowing double-digit leads in both closeout games against the Golden State Warriors, blaming “a roadblock” for impeding the Houston Rockets’ path to the NBA Finals. But the Rockets encountered several roadblocks — from Chris Paul’s hamstring injury to the return of Game 6 Klay Thompson to those unconscionable 27 consecutive missed 3-pointers to the double-MVP onslaught of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — that continue to haunt Harden ever since he walked out of Toyota Center following that decisive Game 7.
“It’s on my mind every day. It’s Game 6, Game 7, that’s what drives me every day,” Harden said.
The Rockets came closest of any team in the past two seasons to defeating the Durant-infused Warriors, who wiped the sweat from their brows from that hard-fought series with Houston, breezed to a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers to repeat as champions and are now giggling and pointing at the rest of the league while shouting, “You mad?” after signing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency. Instead of loading up with a significant counter, the Rockets lost two players who were essential to their success and transformation into an elite defensive team in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Restricted free agent Clint Capela — with whom Harden and Paul combined to go 53-7 when all three played last season — remains unsigned and they now await the expected arrival of Carmelo Anthony, whenever the 10-time all-star is waived by the Atlanta Hawks and becomes a free agent. Harden is unbothered by detractors who believe the Rockets’ best chance of dethroning the Warriors ended when Paul reached for his right hamstring after coming up lame in the final minute of Game 5.
“You can go back to articles and conversations, and people said, ‘Me and Chris can’t play together.’ We were the No. 1 record in the NBA,” Harden said with a laugh. “So, obviously you can look at a roster and look at different players and say that. But you have to be on that court and you’ve got to be in the trenches and be in the war. Eventually, we will figure it out.
“If you don’t get better in this league, you get passed up pretty quick,” Harden said. “We’re not done. But what we have right now is for sure good enough.”
Anthony is coming off the worst season of his career in Oklahoma City and will be entering his 16th season — not exactly a stage in any player’s career in which a bounce back should be expected. But Harden is confident Anthony still has something to offer a team with championship aspirations. “Obviously, it’s a lot of egos, a lot of talent. Someone has to sacrifice in order to get to where you want to go. Everybody in the world knows what Carmelo brings, how gifted and talented he is, and he still has a lot more to go. If he comes to Rockets, we’ll bring the best out of him, and I’m sure he’ll bring the best out of us as well,” Harden said. “We all know how easy Melo scores the basketball. … Things aren’t always going to be perfect but as long as you have that communication, good things will happen.”
The last time he was healthy, Paul was shimmying in Curry’s face, playfully letting it be known that the Rockets weren’t intimidated by a dynasty-in-the-making. The organization doubled down on that belief by giving the 33-year-old Paul — the NBA’s oldest starting point guard — a four-year, $160 million contract. Harden has worked out with Paul this week in Las Vegas and believes “he’s ready” for the challenge ahead. “He’s an old man but he’s such a competitor, he drives me every day to be the best that I can be,” Harden said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to be playing alongside one of the best point guards to ever touch a basketball.”
Even with the addition of Anthony — and retaining Paul and most likely Capela — the Rockets will only go as far as Harden takes them. And while he had some better moments this past postseason, Harden still has to prove that he has the endurance to avoid those untimely late-round fades. The pressure to perform didn’t diminish, it only increased by winning the MVP, but Harden doesn’t exactly see it that way, nor is he intimidated by the scrutiny that he has now earned.
“Pressure is when you’re not prepared. When you’re prepared, it’s no pressure. Just go out there, execute and do what you know how to do,” Harden said, while adding that being so close last season “hurts.” “But it’s a part of basketball. You get back in the gym in the summertime and work your butt off during the season to try to put yourself in that position again.”
The Western Conference got much tougher with LeBron James leaving behind the conference he dominated for eight straight seasons to join the Los Angeles Lakers, but Harden was unmoved by much of what happened this summer — be it James, Cousins giving the Warriors that fifth All-Star they’d been lacking, or even Paul George electing to stay with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. “Nothing changes. The West is already a beast,” Harden said. “We all know what the Warriors bring. Obviously, DeMarcus Cousins is very skilled and talented, but they’re still the Warriors, they won three out of four championships. But we were right there. Clearly, last year showed us we were right there. And we’ll be right there next year as well.”
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