With James Harden as Houston’s point guard, ‘Everybody eats’

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Updated: April 21, 2017

9:00 AM ET

HOUSTON — When Mike D’Antoni interviewed with the Houston Rockets last summer, he met with team brass once in Houston and again at owner Leslie Alexander’s home in Delray Beach, Florida.

D’Antoni pitched an idea that would either make or break his job pursuit: If he became coach of the Rockets, he would move James Harden to point guard.

Harden had played seven NBA seasons at shooting guard and was coming off a season in which he set career highs in scoring (29 points per game), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1).

But D’Antoni had been studying Harden’s game and was convinced it was the right move to make.

“I told them I was [convinced], and then I wouldn’t have gotten the job if he didn’t want to do it, I know that much,” D’Antoni said with a smile. “I’m sure they asked him, ‘What do you think?’ Watching him all last year, it just made sense.”

D’Antoni found a receptive audience to his plan. Before D’Antoni interviewed for the job, Rockets officials had an idea Harden could indeed play point guard. For years, Alexander had wanted the team to play an up-tempo style where 3-pointers, layups and pick-and-rolls were the pulse of the offense. It was just a matter of finding someone who could bring it together.

With Anderson and Gordon spread out farther from the 3-point line, it makes it difficult for defenders trying to close out because they must travel a longer distance to the shooter.

“Very easy; he’s either making a bunch of plays [for others], or he’s scoring himself,” Gordon said of how Harden conducts his on-court business. “You’ve got to pick your poison on who to stop.”

When D’Antoni moved Harden to full-time point guard, the thinking was this team would go faster. To the eye test, it almost appears the Rockets move slower with Harden at point guard — though the team’s average offensive speed in mph remains essentially the same (4.42 this season, 4.41 last season).

From the first day of the regular season, Harden took a measured approach to setting up the offense. Harden often looks to make long passes to teammates who get down the floor for layup attempts. It’s those home run plays that sometimes lead to high turnovers, but D’Antoni will accept it knowing the overall success rate. The Rockets’ pace with Harden on the floor, measured as possessions per 48 minutes, is 117.0 compared to 110.3 when he’s off the floor.

Beverley said he’s never had a problem with moving to off guard because when he plays on the second team, he returns to point guard and Gordon or Lou Williams plays shooting guard.

Morey has noticed how it’s allowed for a smooth rotation as well.

“The second group has been good with Pat on the floor,” Morey said. “To me it shows how much of a team player Pat is. He wants to win, and if anything else, you saw what he did in Game 1.”

In Game 1 of the Thunder series, Beverley scored a playoff career-high 21 points along with 10 rebounds.

“I remember one of the first words Coach D’Antoni shared with us as a coaching staff and the team was the word ‘rhythm.’ Every point guard he’s coached had his own rhythm,” Rockets assistant coach Brett Gunning said. “He was never concerned with the speed. His concern was we got into a rhythm that James was comfortable with.”

That rhythm also allows Harden to pair up with his two centers, starter Clint Capela and his backup, the 15-year veteran Nene Hilario.

According to ESPN Stats Information research, Capela is shooting 75 percent on passes from Harden and 55 percent on all other field goal attempts. Nene is shooting 70 percent on passes from Harden and 57 percent on other attempts.

Harden also led the NBA with 457 assists on pick-and-roll plays. Harden’s ability to read his teammates, whether it’s a lob pass to Capela at the rim or a bounce pass to Nene as he drives to the basket, gives opponents fits.

Of his assists in the pick-and-roll, 217 have gone to the roller, 185 to a spot-up shooter, with 55 going to someone cutting to the basket.

“When you understand basketball — and I have two guys (Beverley is the other player) who understand basketball — it makes it easier,” Nene said. “It’s about angles and when to pass. I try to read him and his reaction to who is playing him and try to be in the right time and place, and he looks for you. You’ve got to help him, and that’s what I try to do, is help him because he’s the man. If I make his life easier, he makes my life easier.”

Gunning said Harden is very good at anticipating where his teammates will be on the floor. There are times when Harden will make a no-look pass in traffic to Nene cutting to the basket or Ariza for a corner 3-pointer before the defense can get set.

Harden said he never really had a conversation with D’Antoni about making his teammates better because that’s what a playmaker is supposed to do. Harden has developed an ability to find teammates to make shots, create his own shot and rebound on both ends.

“As long as I go out there and do what I do at a high level, everybody eats,” Harden said.

Article source: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/19160603/2017-nba-playoffs-james-harden-greatest-ability