MIAMI, Nov. 5 (UPI) — Mixed messages exist in the Houston Rockets’ locker room, but James Harden said he isn’t concerned despite the team’s early season “funk.”
The Rockets star joined forces with former teammate and NBA MVP Russell Westbrook this off-season. The two are tasked with leading the Rockets into NBA Finals contention for years to come. Houston is off to a 4-3 start after being on the wrong end of a 29-point blowout loss to the Miami Heat on Sunday and narrowly beating the 1-5 Memphis Grizzlies on Monday.
“We don’t try to dive in too deep with whatever we want to call it,” Harden said after admitting the team is in a funk. “We just try to focus on the positives and little things we can get better at and correct. Our energy and effort is one of the things we can correct.”
Harden leads the NBA with 36.6 points per game, but is shooting a career-worst 38.1 percent from the floor. Westbrook averaged a triple-double in each of his last three seasons before landing in Houston. He is averaging 21.2 points per game and shooting 25 percent from 3-point range, his worst averages since 2009.
But one of the main reasons for the Rockets’ failure to launch is a lack of effort defensively.
Balancing patience, urgency
“There is not enough tiger out there and we just aren’t playing as hard as we should be playing, especially on the defensive end,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There is just no reason for it.”
The Rockets are averaging the third-most points per game, but also have the third-worst defensive rating in the league. Westbrook and Harden both said the defense needs to improve and expect the team to show more urgency and intensity going forward.
But both stars know they are only on through seven games of an 82-game regular-season schedule, meaning there is plenty of time to mesh on the court and bond off of it.
“It’s a balance, especially every night and this time of the year,” Westbrook said.
D’Antonio admitted the Rockets were “soft” during Sunday’s loss. He also said the team can’t overdo it when it comes to responding after not exhibiting enough energy. Overcompensating often results in aggravation, finger-pointing and makes things “go south really quick,” according to the veteran coach who has led the team to an average of 57.6 wins in each of his last three seasons.
“You can’t panic over it because that doesn’t help anything,” D’Antoni said. “We know how to play basketball, we just have to up our intensity and be ready from the get go and get it.”
But while the team’s best players aren’t fretting the sluggish start, the coach cautions having too much complacency.
“We aren’t in trouble, but if we think we aren’t in trouble then we are in trouble,” D’Antonio said. “You have to have that appropriate fear and understand it’s a new year. We don’t start with any [wins]. We have to work our way back.”
Rockets guard Eric Gordon has been Harden’s teammate since 2016, but has never played with Westbrook. He said the Rockets haven’t had a major change in personnel and need to start playing for each other.
“We’ve gotta talk it out,” Gordon said. “We gotta sacrifice more. Every game has been close. We’ve lost big leads when we’ve won. We’ve just been going through a tough time this season. This is the first time being on a really good team where there’s just not really one person playing really well.
“We’ve just gotta get back to the basics of playing for one another and having each other’s back defensively. That’s what makes the game fun.”
“We all know they are the leaders, but we are all on the court,” Rockets center Clint Capela said. “We all are making mistakes and we all have to figure it out together. We are in this together.”
Despite the desired team mentality, contagious energy seeps from Westbrook’s high-octane playing style and Harden’s prolific scoring ability. Harden and Westbrook have both been ball-dominant players, meaning they need to have the ball in their hands as much as possible to be most effective. Gordon is also part of the floor-general rotation and often will be on the floor with Harden or Westbrook.
Westbrook said before the season that he doesn’t have to have the ball to “impact the game,” but D’Antoni’s early approach indicates he wants the point guard to be hands-on. You might see Harden and Westbrook start and finish games together, but one will frequently be on the bench watching the other attack opposing defenses, while using Gordon for a 3-point shooting outlet.
“I don’t have to have the ball to impact the game,” Westbrook said at Rockets media day. “I don’t have to score, I don’t have to do anything. I can defend, I can rebound, I can pass, I can lead. Our main goal, main focus, is to win.
“I can go be scoreless, and if we win, that’s the best thing that ever happened. That’s all I cared about, and that’s all I ever cared about.”
D’Antoni has been staggering Westbrook and Harden’s minutes, often playing them at different times in games and operating the offense separately in their independent playing styles.
The reunited teammates first joined forces with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, before splitting in 2012 to forge their own superstar paths. Harden frequently came off the bench when he teamed up with Westbrook and fellow superstar Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Harden came off the bench when he played with the Thunder, a team that never won a title with the trio of eventual league MVPs.
Former Thunder coach Scott Brooks has said Harden preferred playing with the second unit at the time, but his game has evolved since.
Durant recently said he doesn’t “see how it’s going to work” between Westbrook and Harden, but thinks the duo can work it out based on their talents.
With Harden and Westbrook’s similar needs on the court and different impacts on the offense, it’s to be determined which strategy might be best for the Rockets’ aspirations of a championship.
It could be harder for the two star players to forge a powerful chemistry if they are sharing the court in a limited fashion, but D’Antoni appears committed to his approach.
“The chemistry between them is fine,” D’Antoni said. “Russell didn’t have a great game [Sunday], but that’s the first one. It all comes down to we just didn’t play as hard as we could or on top of things. We were soft.
“They’ll make it work. Sunday was the first night we didn’t play well from those two guys, but it happens.”
D’Antoni deployed a similar tactic when Chris Paul was a member of the team, but the Rockets never made an NBA Finals appearance during his two seasons overseeing that superstar duo.
Harden has talked to his teammates about this season being a learning process and says it’s “easy” for him not to overreact to his team’s growing pains. The Rockets managed to stay above .500 by slipping by the struggling Grizzlies, without Westbrook in the lineup.
“I think different schemes we can correct, but our energy and effort has to be there at all times no matter who we are playing,” Harden said.