‘James Harden loves to hoop’: Rockets star back on the practice court with his teammates

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Amid times of stress and uncertainty, the Houston Rockets can feel comfort in at least one thing.

“The world knows that no matter what is going on, James Harden loves to hoop,” the Rockets’ star said in the third person. “He’s a competitor.” 

The Rockets already knew that about Harden, who has won two consecutive NBA scoring titles and is surely heading for a third. On Thursday, Harden showed that in a different way. He brought added intensity to practice despite varying circumstances that could have made his first team practice challenging. He had not played a game since the NBA halted the season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harden said he had not played any five-on-five in over a month.  And he missed the beginning of the Rockets’ trip here, citing “some family issues” that he did not disclose.

“I thought we’d have to ramp him up a little bit. But he’s been going hard before he got here,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said Thursday in a video conference call with reporters. “I didn’t see any difference whatsoever.”

So how did Harden show resemblances of the same player that has averaged 34.4 points, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds while making 35.2% of his 3-pointers? Despite remaining limited with his training because of quarantine and social-distancing rules, Harden remained disciplined with his daily training that included running, weight-lifting and yoga sessions.

“I feel comfortable no matter what if I take a month or two off,” Harden said. “The biggest thing for me is conditioning. If I’m able to be in all right shape to get to my spots and handle the ball and get my shot off, then I’m cool.”

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Despite holding a sixth-seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets (40-24) have been considered a championship contender mostly because of Harden. The reasons go beyond his prolific scoring and flair to draw trips to the free-throw line. The Rockets have often raved about his durability and conditioning, two qualities Harden argued could prove to be the difference in a resumed season since all teams are expected to struggle with rust and timing.

“Who can be in shape and who can get mentally turn that switch on as a team?” Harden said. “Whoever can create that bond these next few weeks to push themselves, you try to hit that switch in playoff mode. That will give you the best chance.”

The Rockets will have the best chance if they have a fully healthy roster. They do not have that yet.

It remains unclear when All-Star guard Russell Westbrook will arrive here after announcing Monday he had tested positive for COVID-19. D’Antoni added that Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute has not arrived here either for undisclosed reasons. Still, the Rockets have Harden back. So in his first practice, he showed off his conditioning, his ball-handling, his shooting and his trash talking. 

“He’s one of those guys that loves to work. You can see throughout social media with his pictures,” Rockets forward Ben McClemore said. “He stayed in shape. It shows out here. He wanted to get in shape and get up and down the floor. That’s the only way he can get in game shape.”

Granted, Harden has not reached peak conditioning yet. He admitted that disciplined track and weight-lifting workouts do not fully ensure he has enough endurance to play in a full-court basketball game. Yet, Harden reported feeling satisfied with his pace.

While he aims to reach mid-season form once the NBA playoffs start on Aug. 17, D’Antoni predicted Harden is “going to be ready to go” for the Rockets’ resumed season-opener against the Dallas Mavericks (40-27) on July 31. D’Antoni does not expect he or the team’s medical staff will have to protect Harden from himself.

“James is smart. He knows his body and knows what he needs to do,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll come over late at night getting extra shooting. Or if he needs extra running, he’ll do it. He loves to play. He’s the ultimate professional on what he needs to do to get ready. We’ll talk to him. We’ll all do it together. It’s never a problem and it won’t be a problem.”

Harden had plenty on his mind besides basketball.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden during a March game.

He described the past four months as a “whirlwind” as he struggled processing the pandemic, George Floyd’s killing and his own undisclosed family issues. Floyd, who grew up in Houston, had his funeral there and Harden observed “the way the city rallied was amazing.” Since then, Harden wants to promote various social justice initiatives, though he remains undecided if he will sport a slogan on the back of his jersey.

“With the racial issues going on and the COVID, it was a lot of craziness these last four months,” Harden said. “Hopefully with the NBA being back, we’ll give some positive energy and give the world something to look forward to watching us play.”

In order to do that, Harden ensured that he became “in a good place.” He did that partly by ensuring that the prolonged hiatus would not compromise his off-court work.

“As I get older, I have to make sure my condition is where it needs to be in order for me to perform,” Harden said. “Even when my legs feel a little heavy, I might be mentally a little tired and push myself and get through it.”

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