HOUSTON – So it turns out that you really do need more than one player on your team to win every night.
It was a point made in the early high-flying years of Michael Jordan and virtually every season of Wilt Chamberlain’s career, a couple of names that had been unexpectedly linked to James Harden after he dropped in 37 and 45 points in his first two games as a Rocket.
So when Harden looked more like the Russian space station Mir plummeting into the South Pacific, making just 8 of 24 shots in the home opener on Saturday night, it was a reminder that the blockbuster trade was just a start. There is still much work to be done in Houston.
For the Rockets to come close to their stated goal of challenging for a playoff spot in what suddenly looks like a very wide open Western Conference, The Beard’s teammates are going to have to make more than a whisker of a contribution, especially at crunch time. Even when Harden was struggling to shoot just 1-for-8, it was all about him.
For all the best-laid plans, this is not a team that is going far on a diet that exists strictly of pick-and-roll or 1-on-1. The Rockets need to run, play in the open court and move the ball to get the most from their green, unripened roster.
It was fun and high drama — and even the right strategy — to see Harden holding the ball out front, watching the clock tick down and preparing to challenge Portland’s Wesley Matthews with the score tied at the end of regulation. But having Harden in that spot and having the rest of the Rockets simply stand around and watch like the rest of the Toyota Center crowd was in reality putting him and them in their weakest position.
Harden’s best asset is his ability to see openings and plays and passes and possibilities on the move and reacting while the defense is still trying to figure out where he is. When he slows the game down and gives his opponents to set up and prepare, there is more a chance of something happening like the strip that Matthews made that sent the game in overtime, where the Blazers won.
Harden was simply worn out from his heroics of the first two nights of the schedule, bedraggled by the fourth quarter and even slowed more by a tweaked ankle and, of course, the Rockets were never going to go 82-0.
The first two blasts out of the starting gate and the national headlines they created were the most fun and attention created by the Rockets after three years of defining mediocrity. Harden untethered from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, will be a kick to watch all season. But not if his teammates do too much of it.