Monday, April 23, 2018

Is James Harden one of the best ever? Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni says so

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PORTLAND – Mike D’Antoni isn’t just any NBA coach.

The 66-year-old is an innovator, someone who changed the game during his time with Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns and went on to coach the Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers and the Carmelo Anthony New York Knicks before this ongoing renaissance with the Houston Rockets. So when he called James Harden “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen” after the Rockets’ 115-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night at the Moda Center, it was the kind of compliment that deserved a deeper examination.

Bryant, lest anyone forgot, is the third-leading scorer in league history. Nash was a wizard of the most memorable kind, someone who passed his way into third on the all-time assist lists while always qualifying as a lethal scorer. Anthony, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, just recently entered the top 20 in all-time points.

Yet here is Harden, whose cheat-code ways led to a 42-point, seven-assist, six-rebound outing, pulling off the kinds of feats that leave D’Antoni convinced he’s never seen someone better.

That stepback three from the left wing against Jusuf Nurkic with 3:21 left was just downright impolite, the big man left alone on Harden Island as he buried the shot that improved so much last summer. Ditto for the follow-up three with 1:55 left, when Damian Lillard guarded him to the halfcourt line only to see Harden push a three up and over his defensive pressure for a nine-point lead.

This, make no mistake, was just the latest virtuoso performance from the soon-to-be league MVP.

“He’s a hell of a player, first off,” D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports when asked to explain his declaration. “It’s a combination of everything. There are other players who might be better at this, or a little bit better at that. But when you put everything together, and the way he passes, the way he sees teammates, the way he can lob, the way he can fight through a foul. I mean even on an off night, he’s probably getting 30, 40 points, and I mean efficiently. And he doesn’t even have anything going. But he’s so efficient, and he gets other guys involved. …He’s got one flaw. He does get tired some. He’s mortal. And that’s it. Other than that …”

And therein lies the beauty of these Rockets.

Harden’s fatigue factor was front and center last May, when the Rockets fell to the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals and it became abundantly clear that the Rockets needed more help. Enter Chris Paul, who veered away from the alpha-male role he’d held with the Los Angeles Clippers to force a trade to the Rockets that has worked out better than even they could have imagined.

After beating the Blazers (who had won 13 in a row heading into the game), that’s 30 wins in 33 tries for a Rockets team that is now four games up on the injury-ravaged Golden State Warriors (and the Rockets have the tiebreaker to boot). The combination of Harden and Paul has been nothing short of magical, with their brilliance magnified by the injuries to Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green that have made the Warriors look so vulnerable.

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Yet when it comes to the MVP conversation, there’s simply no debate about who will be hoisting the Maurice Podoloff trophy once the season ends. Harden, who leads the league in scoring (31.2 points per game) and is third in assists (8.7 per) behind Russell Westbrook and LeBron James despite playing alongside a future Hall of Famer in Paul (7.9 per) who is universally known as “the Point God,” has never been better than this.

“I mean to me it’s just clear cut he should be the MVP,” said Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who had 18 points against the Blazers to match his season-long average that is third on the team behind Harden and Paul. “He’s scoring. He’s passing. And to me, the efficiency is just there. You know, whenever there’s a tight game, he’s just hitting the tough shots. I just don’t know what else you want from a guy like that.

“I just think he needed teammates around him like he has now, where we can play both sides of the ball where it takes a lot of pressure of him, and he can just focus on one thing – that’s really scoring, and he’s defending better. For sure. He’s doing a better job defending, no question, this year. I think it just makes it really simple. If you double him, then we’re going to punish you with all these shooters. And if you just want to play him one on one, it’s going to be easy. You can’t meet guys at the rim because you’ve got Clint Capela on lobs, I think he has just better help than in the past.”

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For Paul, and so many others, Harden is the MVP.

“Nah,” Paul said when asked if the MVP race that includes the likes of Durant, Lillard, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo is close. “But who knows? I don’t get a vote, you know what I mean? But (we need to) stay healthy, keep playing, and I think that’ll take care of itself.”

Harden, meanwhile, is taking care of every opponent that comes his way.

“It’s hard (to stop these Rockets),” Harden said with a smile. “It’s pretty tough. Not just because of me, but because of the way our team is stacked up. We have a lot of talent on both ends of the floor. … We just take what the defense gives us.”

And as D’Antoni sees it, he does it better than some of the best who have ever done it.

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” D’Antoni had said. “They were running guys to him, and he just steps a little further back and hits a three. You know, the way he can pass and see the floor, get fouls, layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner, he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those stepback threes, it’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible. …It’s amazing. Tonight was an unbelievable performance.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick

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