Posts Tagged ‘Rockets’

Kobe won’t pile on Howard with K.D.

HOUSTON — Kobe Bryant’s contentious history with Dwight Howard, as both teammate and opponent, is well-documented. The pair had a scrap in the season opener at Staples Center.

But on a night when Howard sat out of a 98-92 loss to L.A. due to a strained right knee, Bryant did not want to jump into the war of words between the Rockets center and Kevin Durant of the Thunder.

When Howard and Durant got into an argument Sunday night in Oklahoma City, Durant reportedly called Howard an expletive that questioned his manhood.

“No, I don’t feel that way,” Bryant said. “And I don’t think Kevin does either. At moments of confrontation during a game you’ll say things in the heat of the moment. I know Dwight. I’m sure Kevin does. We don’t feel that way about him.

“You get in an argument with somebody, you’ll say things out of frustration, out of anger that you really don’t mean. It’s a heat of the battle, heat of the moment.

“You (media) guys have all been in arguments, guys that are married. Sometimes you say things that you want to take back, that you don’t really mean. But it’s in the heat of confrontation.”

Because of knee, Dwight won’t see Kobe

Dwight Howard complained of a sprained right knee and sat out Wednesday’s rematch against Kobe Bryant, which of course only means two things are now inflamed: the knee, and the “soft” rap against Howard which came courtesy of Kobe.

The Lakers-Rockets game was the first meeting between the teams since the season opener, when Howard and Kobe competed against each other for the first time since Howard left the Lakers two summers ago. Their relationship wasn’t the best then, and when they exchanged elbows with seven minutes in the opener, won easily by the Rockets, it only escalated in public view.

Once they were separated, not only did Kobe call out Howard by saying “try me” repeatedly, he also yelled “soft.” Lakers coach Byron Scott said the obvious: “They don’t like each other. It’s as simple as that.”

Well, then. It could be a bit of frustration on Kobe’s behalf, because the downfall of the Lakers began when Howard signed as a free agent with the Rockets, rather than stick around in L.A. during Kobe’s sunset. The Lakers haven’t been a winner since, and began this season losing nine of their first 10. Meanwhile, Howard and the Rockets are second only to the Grizzlies in the West.

Speaking of Memphis, Howard said he tweaked the knee against the Grizzlies but appeared to downplay the injury, calling it “bumps and bruises” following a back-to-back. Howard also didn’t raise the knee as an issue earlier Wednesday at the morning shootaround, but apparently discomfort set in shortly thereafter.

Report: Bosh didn’t want ‘pressure’ of title chase with Rockets

You know the old saying: If you can’t stand the heat, stay with the Heat.

That’s pretty much the admission that Chris Bosh made about his decision last summer to turn down the free-agent offer to chase another championship or two with the Rockets.

When LeBron James chose to leave Miami and return to the Cavaliers in July, it was generally believed that Bosh would make a perfect fit with fellow All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston.

The Rockets made Bosh a max offer of four years, $88 million. The Heat eventually got him to stay for their own max of five years, $118 million. And it’s hard to anyone to tell someone else to simply give up $30 million.

But it wasn’t solely about the money. Bosh told Ken Berger of CBSSports.com that after four years of living under the microscope of intense scrutiny in Miami, he was ready to, well, not put so much effort into intensity-filled title chase:

“I could see where people would think that’s an attractive site,” Bosh told CBSSports.com, speaking of Houston, where half the NBA expected him to land back in July. “They were trying to win right away. And I was really happy to be touted that I possibly could’ve been out there. But you know, that doesn’t guarantee anything, and I know that. All that guarantees is a bunch of pressure.”

Before you jump on Bosh for taking the easy way out, consider what the past four years were like for him. He was never the most important corner of the James-Wade-Bosh triangle, except when he missed an open jumper or flubbed a defensive assignment. He had to sacrifice and unlearn key parts of his game to adapt to the more dominant talents and personalities around him. For four years, every day in the life of the Miami Heat was like being on tour with the No. 1 artist in the land.

The perpetual chase, the championship-or-bust environment, the celebrity status afforded basketball’s three-headed monster — all of it wore on James, who spoke often last season of the mental fatigue of pursuing a fourth straight trip to the Finals. Everyone was so busy chronicling James’ every word that they forgot to ask Bosh what he thought.

It wore on him, too.

“It’s incredibly difficult to win a championship,” Bosh told CBSSports.com. “I know that, and I know it’s a whole process.”

The Rockets had pushed all their chips to the center of the table in pursuit of Carmelo Anthony (who chose to stay in New York) and then Bosh, a perfect complement to Howard and Harden. With James gone and with Rockets GM Daryl Morey clearing the runway for Bosh to chase a third ring as the third wheel in his home state of Texas, it all seemed to be a fait accomplit. The Rockets sure seemed to think so.

“Did they?” Bosh told CBSSports.com. “… I think they’re still in contention for it even without me. It’s free agency. It’s a crazy time. It just kind of got crazy real fast and then it settled down completely.”

It did so when Bosh chose to settle down in Miami, a place that he and his family have adopted as “pretty much our second home,” he said.

“I’m familiar with people,” Bosh said. “I know how to get to work. And if there’s traffic, I know the shortcuts. It’s those small things that I really love about the city and I love about being comfortable that guided me back. And you know, if you can make a couple of dollars on the side, then it works out.”

Morning shootaround — Nov. 16


VIDEO: Highlights from Saturday’s NBA action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron loves seeing the Hawks| Knicks ready to fight for Marc Gasol? | CP3 rescues the Clippers | Rockets talking mental toughness

No. 1: LeBron loves seeing the Hawks — Perhaps this is his way of taking out his frustrations on the San Antonio Spurs. Since he couldn’t do it against the real Spurs, LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers went in on the Atlanta Hawks Saturday night in record fashion. LeBron, as Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group makes clear, loves seeing the Hawks:

LeBron James’ body language spoke volumes Saturday night.

Consider what was said in the second quarter of the Cavaliers’ 127-94 thumping of the Atlanta Hawks.

Cleveland was on its way to a 71-point first half, had drained its first 11 three-pointers, and would end the half with assists on 22 of 25 field goals. James wasn’t sprinting so much as he was gliding around the court, tossing one-handed, no-look, razor-sharp passes into traffic for layups.

The way he was moving around the court, his leg churning like pistons and eyes up, looking for open teammates with a little grin on his face – was a look seldom (if ever seen) on James since he returned to the Cavaliers.

He looked like he was having fun.

“I have fun every time I step out on the basketball court – win, lose, or draw,” James said. “I have a love for the game, I have fun, I show it on my face sometimes more than others. Inside, the kid is always excited to put another uniform on and go out and play.”

***

No. 2: Knicks ready to fight for Marc Gasol? — Leave it up the Knicks, a team struggling in every facet in this early season, to worry about free agency before Thanksgiving. They are already poised to pick a fight with the reigning world champion San Antonio Spurs … for Marc Gasol, who by the way is busy leading his Memphis Grizzlies to the top of the Western Conference standings right now. Those little details won’t stop Knicks Nation from dreaming about what could be. Frank Isola of the Daily News has more:

Phil Jackson has made a career out of taking pot shots at the San Antonio Spurs so even if the Knicks president doesn’t respect Greg Popovich’s club he should fear them.

The Knicks’ main free-agent target, Marc Gasol, is also being targeted as a possible replacement to Tim Duncan assuming Ol’ Man Riverwalk retires this summer. The Knicks will be players for the Memphis center mainly because of the first three rules of real estate — location, location, location — and because Gasol is familiar with both Jackson and Derek Fisher since older brother Pau spent the best years of his career with the Lakers.

Otherwise, staying in Memphis will be appealing to Gasol, whose team is a legitimate championship contender. The Grizzlies can offer Gasol the most money, and he has grown to love the city, having lived there since high school when Pau broke in with the Grizzlies.

Coincidently, Pau considered the Spurs this past summer but took more money to join the Chicago Bulls, much to Jackson’s chagrin. When Pau signed, Jackson tweeted a photo of lightning striking the city of Chicago. He might end up tossing his iPhone in the East River if Marc signs with the Spurs, arguably the best run franchise in all of pro sports. They also have the nucleus to remain a contender for years to come.

Signing with the Knicks strictly for basketball reasons is a tougher sell, although his Spanish teammate, Jose Calderon, will be a key part of the recruiting pitch. History, however, is not on the Knicks’ side. The last major free agent to make a significant impact was Allan Houston all the way back in the summer of the 1996. Back then, Jeff Van Gundy was winning big as the head coach, and Jim Dolan was learning to play the guitar, not running the Garden. Crazy coincidence, no?

***

No. 3:CP3 to the rescue for Clippers — It’s an act Chris Paul will probably have to perform more often than he wants to this season, rescuing the Los Angeles Clippers from despair the way he did against the Phoenix Suns. But that’s the burden he signed on for when he became the face of the franchise. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times explains:

After taking four days off to collect themselves after a difficult loss to San Antonio, Chris Paul made sure the Clippers played better basketball.

Paul took over the game in the third quarter and then saved the Clippers from imploding in the fourth, pushing Los Angeles to a 120-107 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night at Staples Center.

Paul scored a season-high 32 points on 10-for-13 shooting, including five for six on three-point shots. He had nine assists and five rebounds in helping the Clippers score a season high in points.

When the Clippers’ 26-point lead was cut to 11 points late in the fourth quarter, Paul went to work.

He scored seven consecutive points in the fourth to help the Clippers pull out a victory in which six players scored in double figures.

He made two free throws, a three-pointer and a jumper.

The Clippers outscored the Suns, 42-20, in the third quarter in opening their big lead.

***

No. 4: Rockets talking mental toughness – The Houston Rockets have clearly turned a corner on the court from last season. They look every bit as fit to chase a championship as we thought they should have and would have a year ago. But the real test is about the mental toughness needed to win it all. And the Rockets are working on that, as should be expected after a narrow escape against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Jenny Dial-Creech of the Houston Chronicle explains:

After barely pulling out an 88-87 win over Philadelphia on Friday night, the Rockets practiced Saturday in preparation for their third set of back-to-back road games this season.

On Sunday, the Rockets will play at Oklahoma City and on Monday they will travel to Memphis.

“We already know these are two playoff teams,” guard Jason Terry said. “Both of these teams, barring they stay healthy, will be in the playoffs this year. Oklahoma is a tough team. We know their system very well.

“Memphis is a division opponent. It is sort of a rivalry. You have to say that because they are in the division so you never want to lose division games. It will be a tough challenge because they have two great big men that are the toughest two tandem in the league and you have a great, young point guard in Conley who pushes the tempo and is always on the attack.”

Terry said that headed into the road trip, he felt the Rockets were mentally stronger than ever thanks to the close call against the Sixers.

“We grew as a team,” he said. “On this journey that we go on through the regular season, there are going to be times where your mental toughness is tested and (Friday) was one of those times. We got back late from Mexico City. We didn’t practice. We came right back here and the game came so fast against a team that lost by 50 the night before. They were ready, they were hungry, they challenged us and we weathered the storm. I learned a lot about us, about our mental toughness. It’s good to see, and it’s good to see early on in the season. It won’t be the last test, but we passed the first one.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Magic finally get Victor Oladipo back in their starling lineup … The Chicago Bulls love what Pau Gasol brings to the Windy City  … Bradley Beal targeting a return to practice this week with the Wizards … Warriors coach Steve Kerr is keeping his (starting lineup) options open … The Milwaukee Bucks’ dedication to defense is paying off

 

Ailing Howard to miss unbeaten battle

HOUSTON — Another night, another anticipated showdown between Western Conference heavyweights goes up in smoke.

Rockets center Dwight Howard will sit out Saturday’s game between the 6-0 Rockets and 4-0 Warriors suffering from flu-like symptoms.
 Howard is coming off a rousing 32-point, 16-rebound, two blocked shot performance Thursday night against the Spurs.

However, that meeting between the unbeaten Rockets and the defending champs lost some of its shine when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to rest Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.


The Rockets were already going to play without starting point guard Pat Beverley (left hamstring) and power forward Terrence Jones (right leg contusion).

Rookie Tarik Black will start for the Rockets at center and rookie Kostas Papanikolaou will open in Jones’ spot.

Superman’s return(?) lifts Rockets


VIDEO: Dwight Howard goes alley-oop crazy on the Spurs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We haven’t seen him in a couple of years, the smiling big guy who wore the cape and leaped over all things.

The dominant Dwight Howard we all grew accustomed to seeing while he starred in Orlando, the one who disappeared two years ago in Los Angeles and struggled a bit adjusting early on in Houston last season, was back on the floor Thursday night in Houston.  Howard crushed the (Tim Duncan-less) San Antonio Spurs, executing a series of alley-oop dunks early against the reigning world champs in the Rockets’ 98-81 demolition job.

Howard finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds and was unstoppable inside. The Rockets are 6-0 with James Harden and Howard leading the way.

Harden was splendid last season, a first-team All-NBA pick on a good team that couldn’t get out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Could Superman’s return lift them up to that next level this season?

I don’t see  why not.

If this is the Howard we’re going to see all season, maybe I need to take another look at the landscape in the West and put the Rockets in their proper position among the elite teams. Originally I saw them as a team capable of chasing that fourth spot behind San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

But early on it’s the undefeated Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors who are leading the pack. The Grizzlies have their own dominant big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They’d be hard-pressed to look any better than Howard did against the Spurs.

Hakeem: Howard is ‘ready’ for an MVP-type season

Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Olajuwon (left) has seen Dwight Howard’s game mature and grow of late. (Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

At least one former MVP doesn’t think it should have taken a broken bone in Kevin Durant’s foot to throw the 2015 MVP race wide open.

According to Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwight Howard was already prepared to kick the door down.

“He’s healthy. He’s strong. He’s ready,” said Olajuwon, who won the award in 1994 when he led the Rockets to the first of their back-to-back championships. “Now it’s about having the attitude to go out every night and dominate.”

The Hall of Famer officially rejoined his former team as a player development specialist after Howard signed a free agent contract with the Rockets in July 2013 and recently concluded his second training camp stint working with the All-Star center before returning to his home in Amman, Jordan. Prior to the start of camp, Olajuwon had not worked with Howard since the end of last season.

“He’s older, more mature and you can tell that he is feeling better physically,” Olajuwon said. “I like what I saw. He is a very hard worker. He takes the job seriously and you can see that he has used some of the things we talked about last season and is making them part of his game.”

Howard averaged 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in his first season with the Rockets and Olajuwon thinks the 28-year-old was just scratching the surface as he regained fitness.

“It was a good start, but last year Dwight was still trying to recover from the back surgery and to feel like himself again,” said Olajuwon. “I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what it is like for an athlete to have a back injury. It is serious. It is a challenge.

“I could see last year when I worked with him in camp that there were some things that he could not do. Or they were things that he did not think he could do. The difference now is that he is fit and those doubts are gone. This is the player who can go back to being the best center in the league and the kind of player that can lead his team to a championship. I think he should be dominant at both ends of the floor.”

Olajuwon is the only player in NBA history to be named MVP of the regular season, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season when he led the Rockets in 1994 and pulled the wagon again as Finals MVP when Houston repeated in 1995. He and Michael Jordan are the only players to win all three awards in their career.

Olajuwon doesn’t believe there is any reason the Rockets, who finished as the No. 4 seed in the West and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Portland last spring, should fall back, even with the departure of rotation players Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

“They have Dwight and they have James Harden,” he said. “That is two of the best players at their positions in the league. Those two can lead. Those two can do enough. You don’t need to have All-Stars at every position.

“The Rockets will need good play from some young players and from others who will be getting their chance to be key players for the first time in their careers. But when we won our first championship in 1994, we had Sam Cassell, who was a rookie, playing at the end of games and making a difference. When we won in 1995, we had Clyde (Drexler). But we also had Pete Chilcutt in the starting lineup and Chucky Brown and Charles Jones stepping up off the bench.

“When you have Howard and Harden, you have two players who can do much of the scoring. What you need are others to not try to do too much. Just concentrate on doing your job and coming to play every night.”

It begins and ends with Howard.

“We all know that center is the key position in the game,” Olajuwon said. “Everything should go through you — offense and defense and the right mentality. If the center is thinking about dominating, the team can go far, can go all the way.

“I played at a time when were so many players that could win the MVP each year — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone. It meant you weren’t going to win the MVP every year. But you had to play like an MVP and have your name in the conversation. I believe that’s where Dwight is now. He is healthy. He is physically fit. He is strong. He wants to win.

“It is about attitude. He should have a season that makes everyone vote for him as MVP. If that happens, they should be contenders for the championship. I believe that. Now they have to believe it.”


VIDEO: Hakeem Olajuwon schools Dwight Howard on post moves back in 2010

A dozen age old keys to the season

Back when the Rolling Stones sang Time Is On My Side, they surely weren’t thinking about NBA players deep into the second decades of their playing careers. All that running, jumping and end-to-end athleticism clearly make the NBA a young man’s game. Still, by the time things shake out next spring and the playoffs begin, a virtual roster full of veterans will have played a big part in the success or failure of some seasons. Here are the dozen graybeards (listed oldest to youngest) who’ll make a difference … one way or the other:

Steve Nash (Noah Graham /NBAE)

Steve Nash (Noah Graham /NBAE)

Steve Nash, 40, Lakers — The former two-time MVP is having a hard time limping to the finish line of his career. After playing in just 15 games last season, there was hopeful optimism that he and teammate Kobe Bryant could turn back the clock together. But recurring back problems have coach Byron Scott thinking more about starting Jeremy Lin at the point and bringing Nash off the bench.

Ray Allen, 39, unsigned — Is there a playoff team on any corner of the NBA map that wouldn’t want to have one of the great pure shooters in league history on the bench next spring? From Cleveland to San Antonio and every point in between, they’ve been trying to get him onboard. He’s still weighing whether he wants to play at all. The winner in this sweepstakes gets a bonanza.

Andre Miller, 38, Wizards — It’s not like the advancing age is going to make him any slower or look less athletic. Now with Bradley Beal sidelined, there will be more opportunities for the veteran to show that he can do all of the good stuff, like the drive and pass to Kevin Seraphin that produced the game-winning dunk over the Pistons earlier this week. He’s that old neighbor down the street who knows how to fix everything and is handy to have around.

Tim Duncan, 38, Spurs — Coach Gregg Popovich treats him as delicately as Grandma’s heirloom china during the regular season and hasn’t played him for more than 30.1 minutes per game since 2009-10. We keep saying that he’s got to fall over the edge eventually, but then he went out and was the driving force behind the Spurs’ championship run last spring. Would you really bet against him doing it again?

Kevin Garnett, 38, Nets — For the first time in 19 seasons, K.G. looked old and tired and not engaged last season as he averaged a career-low 6.5 points per game as a role player. Everybody’s saying Year 20 is probably the last, but Garnett is saying he feels physically better and intends to return to his aggressive ways and have an impact again. Expectations are lower across the board for him and the team — and that could be a good thing.

Vince Carter, 37, Grizzlies — Back when he was chinning himself over the rim to win the Slam Dunk Contest back in 2000, who thought the uber-athletic Carter could still be a factor 1 1/2 decades later? But here he is, changing teams from Dallas to Memphis as he’s aged into a racehorse that can still give you 25 solid minutes per game and knock down clutch 3-pointers to boot.

Manu Ginobili, 37, Spurs — So close to retiring due to injuries following the Finals loss in 2013, he came back to shine through a remarkably healthy championship campaign. But for a guy who continues to play recklessly, the next back or knee injury is always just a cut or a jump away. If for any reason he’s not fully fit next spring, the chance to finally repeat will diminish greatly.

Jason Terry, 37, Rockets — The former Sixth Man of the Year when the Mavericks won their 2011 championship, the Jet has lost more than a little of his lift and cruising speed. But he’s bound and determined to show there’s something left in the tank and on a Houston bench that is thin, he’ll get called on by coach Kevin McHale. Don’t underestimate his veteran leadership in a locker room where Dwight Howard and James Harden are not fully comfortable in the role.

Paul Pierce, 37, Wizards — What they lost in defense from free agent Trevor Ariza, the Wizards could make up for in Pierce’s willingness and ability to make the big shots late in games. No question that John Wall and Beal are the engines of the offense. But Pierce could go a long way in showing them how and when to step on the gas.

Kobe Bryant, 36, Lakers — Probably not since Ronald Reagan moved into the White House will an old guy with so many miles on him attract so much attention. It would be one thing if Kobe just wanted to come back and play. But he’s Kobe and that means the alpha dog will settle for nothing less than his snarling old self. Virtually nobody thinks he can do what he used to do and, of course, that’s exactly what will drive him.

Pau Gasol, 34, Bulls — Never the sturdiest guy on the court during his prime, he’s missed 55 games over the past two seasons due to injuries. But he still has skills and now he has Joakim Noah alongside on the front line in Chicago to do the big banging. Assuming Derrick Rose can come back anywhere close to his previous form, this could be a perfect situation for Gasol to slide in as a secondary weapon. If that happens, the Bulls are in the fight to win the East.

David West, 34, Pacers — Is this the thanks a fella gets for spending his career as a dutiful professional who comes in every game to get the job done? First Lance Stephenson bolts in free agency to Charlotte. Then Paul George suffers the horrific injury while playing for Team USA. The Pacers enter the season in big, big trouble, which means West, the veteran forward, will be asked to shoulder the burden on a nightly basis. It doesn’t seem fair or doable.

Morning shootaround — Oct. 5




VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony on chemistry with new teammates and more

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Melo wants less burden | McHale still confident | Lawson primed for jump | Rose gets physical
No. 1: Anthony hopes to get help carrying the load Carmelo Anthony could have jumped to Chicago or Houston or Dallas over the summer in order to join lineups where he wouldn’t have been the only big gun in the ammo belt. Of course, there was that matter of signing for $124 million in New York that changed his mind. But now with the season opener rapidly approaching, Melo says he looks forward to a time when he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting at Madison Square Garden. Al Iannazzone of Newsday reveals Anthony’s discussion with new boss Phil Jackson, along with the news that Melo wants to jump back in the Olympic pool in 2016 at Rio:

“For this season right now, we have what we have,” Anthony said after practice Saturday. “We’re going to deal with that. That was a big discussion with me and Phil talking about — that was one of my things. I didn’t want to have to do it night in and night out. I wanted some nights when somebody else can pick up the load.
“Right now with the way we’re playing, I don’t have to do everything. But we haven’t had a game yet. We haven’t played one game.”

Jackson has shaken up the roster, trading for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Travis Outlaw, Quincy Acy and Shane Larkin, signing Jason Smith and drafting Cleanthony Early. His biggest move, though, was re-signing Anthony.

But Jackson and new coach Derek Fisher are trying to establish a way they want the Knicks to play — unselfishly, and with a commitment to defense. Even if the Knicks aren’t a contender this season, Anthony sees some relief for him.

“It will be less pressure on me,” he said. “I can see that now in training camp. I feel that. I can see what we’re able to do with the little bit of time we’ve been together this week. I see other guys’ roles and how they’re implemented into the system and what they’re capable of doing. I think it’ll be easier. It’s still going to be a dogfight, but I think it’ll be a little bit easier where everybody is not keying in and focusing on me every single time down the court.”

***

No. 2: No new contract, no problem for McHale — The sting of Damian Lillard’s shot is still deep in his bones. The empty free-agent fishing expedition of the summer still hangs over his team. But even through Kevin McHale goes into the last year of his contract in Houston, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle says the Rockets coach is comfortable in his own skin and confident that he can get the job done:

“I got pretty comfortable with myself a lot of decades ago,” McHale, 56, said. “I haven’t changed much.”
As he began his fourth training camp as Rockets coach, with only coaches and staff remaining from his first, there have been adjustments to the Rockets’ style. He has demanded the more physical style he once played. The Rockets have collected more of the types of players he had wanted all along. There are defensive tweaks.

Almost the entire second unit was rebuilt from last season.

Yet, as he enters the final season of his contract, McHale cites the same values, the same priorities he has been trying to instill since that difficult, rushed first season as Rockets coach. The most tenured players with the Rockets, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, said there have been slight changes in schemes but not in their coach’s style.
“We’re all in this together,” McHale said. “The crazy thing about coaching is I’ve had players say I’m way too hard, I’m way too strict. And then you have guys that say, ‘You need to get on that guy.’ I always laugh at the guy that says, ‘You need to get on that guy more.’ I say, ‘Do I need to get on you more?’ They say, ‘No.’ When you’ve had 14, 15 guys on the team, and I learned this a long time ago, I’m not going to connect with everyone. But they’re going to play the system we’re playing. And I’m not playing. I have to give them the ability and the confidence so they can succeed.”

McHale inspires an unusual mix of reactions from players. He is referred to as “a players’ coach” so often it is practically in his job description. In many ways – particularly when demanding uncompromising effort – he is unbending, with little patience for a lack of commitment.

He has even less tolerance for excuses. That includes any suggestion that he is hampered by coaching in the final season of his contract. The other Rockets head coaches hired by owner Leslie Alexander – Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman - never received a second contract after completing their four-year term. But neither seemed like a lame duck looking over his shoulder in his final season with the team.

McHale seems so secure in the way he works and what he values, he appears as unaffected by his contract situation in its final season as he was in its first.

“That has no bearing on me,” McHale said. “I never believed that. If you’re going to play better in the last year of your contract because it’s the last year of your contract, I question who you are. If you are going to coach better because you’re in the last year of your contract, I question that guy.

“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve always done. I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can with these guys, try to get these guys to be the best possible team we can be, and you know what, like as a player, you do the best job you can. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”

***

No. 3: Lawson says he belongs with elite at point — Coming off a season in which he posted career highs in points and assists per game, the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post that he belongs in any conversation about the best point guards in the league. But Lawson knows that he will only get that recognition if he can turn his team’s performance around and make the Nuggets winners again in the rugged Western Conference:

Q: How big a year is this for you to establish the type of player you are?
A: For my career, this is the next step. I’ve got to make the next step. This year has to be that next step. I’m entering the prime of my NBA career, so this is where it either goes up or goes down.
Q: What do you need to do to get to that next level?
A: I feel like we have to win — because I feel like my numbers are elite numbers, what I did last year. The only thing separating me from everyone else is just winning. Chris Paul has gotten out of the second round. Russell Westbrook went to the NBA Finals. I feel like to get to that level, you’ve got to win games. Kyrie (Irving) this year, he’s going to get out of the first and second round. So that’s the goal.
Q: You mentioned Paul, Westbrook and Irving. Do you see yourself in that group as an elite point guard?
A: I do, minus just the winning. Especially for a point guard, that takes you to the next level. If you’re a point guard and you’re not winning but you’re killing it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a leadership role.
Q: When you look back at last season, how tough was it to go through?
A: It was huge. It was the first time I didn’t go to the playoffs in my whole career, from high school to … even elementary. I’m always used to winning or being in the playoff run, playing for something. It was tough.
Q: Is there a lesson to be learned from what happened last season?
A: Yeah, I think so. Just being professional. Going toward the end of the season, not saying that I didn’t feel like playing but saying we’re not playing for nothing, that’s not really professional. So, just learning that, learning professionalism, that took a big hit last year.
Q: Every year about this time, the leadership question comes up. Are you tired of that?
A: No, not really, because that’s an area I should work on, and that I think I have worked on. Being a leader, being out here being more vocal and also just showing by example is what it’s going to take.

***

No. 4: Thibodeau wants physicality from Rose — Just getting back onto the court and starting to building up his legs and his stamina at the FIBA World Cup in Spain was important for Derrick Rose. But coach Tom Thibodeau tells Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times that it’s the physical nature of tough training camp workouts that will get the former MVP back to the level that the Bulls will need this season:

”He’ll be able to handle it,” Thibodeau said. ”He just has to get used to it again. That’s why the USA Basketball stuff was so important, to get used to having contact. The more he does it, the better it is for him and the more you see the rust come off.
”Now you see him start to make some of the plays he’s capable of making. Now he’s starting to get a little bit of a rhythm and starting to shoot better, which we anticipated. That’s why him practicing and practicing hard is so important.”
A physical approach would seem to contradict what Rose was preaching this summer, when he said he had to be smarter about contact. Two season-ending knee surgeries since the 2012 playoffs might have an influence on his attitude.
”I think you’ll see that next year, just trying to keep people off my body,” he said in late July. ”Using a lot of floaters, using a lot of pull-ups, things like that, so that I won’t be touched as much.”
But the kind of contact that being aggressive around the rim brings isn’t concerning Thibodeau as much as the general physicality of an NBA game.
”In the NBA, you get into a pick-and-roll and there’s going to be a guy on your body,” Thibodeau said. ”And your challenge is you’re trying to create separation and get away from people. But when you’re a player like him, you’re also going to be trapped a lot. When someone is on you all the time — and someone will be on him all the time — you have to get used to that. . . . We’re not talking about driving to the basket and someone knocks him down. We’re talking about catch-and-shoot, pick-and-roll, even isolation — someone will be on him all the time.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James will be back on the court in a Cleveland uniform when the Cavs open the preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight. … Steve Nash says he’s not concerned about a tweaked ankle at practice … Doctor says Rajon Rondo should return at 100 percent from broken hand.

ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George, now rehabbing from a broken leg, remains among the best two-way players in the game today:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam

Harden vows to add ‘D’ to his ‘A game’


VIDEO: Kevin McHale, James Harden and Dwight Howard discuss the upcoming season

HOUSTON — If there’s one thing the Rockets tired of more than seeing replays of Damian Lillard’s lethal dagger over the summer, it was hearing the criticism of James Harden’s defense. Or what there was of it.

The All-NBA first team guard was a virtual pin cushion on social media for his lack of commitment to the part of the game that didn’t involve his trying to put the ball into the basket.

“I hear it,” Harden said at the annual Media Day gathering on Monday. “I don’t pay attention to it. I’m not a really good defender. At times I can be really bad.

“A lot of stars, their defense is bad. That’s a category I know I have to get better at. For us to go and reach our potential, that’s something that has to be done. That’s one of the things I’m excited about this season. I have no choice.”

Harden raised some eyebrows when he told an interviewer that he regarded himself as the best all-around player in the NBA.

“I wasn’t saying that to be cocky,” he said. “I’ve just put such hard work and effort into my craft. Obviously we know there’s a lot of great talent out there in this league.”

Perhaps Harden even made the statement to set the bar even higher to motivate himself.

“Probably, to play the way I know I can play,” he said. “My teammates know I can play. Like I said, I got to get better at both ends. It’s just me focusing on all possessions. Being able to concentrate on small things.”

Coach Kevin McHale, with his pedigree as player, knows about the small and large things that go into the making of champion, including getting defensive effort from even the biggest offensive gun.

“We talked about all that,” McHale said. “We’ve constantly been challenging James to take on challenges. He knows he’s got to improve in areas. We asked him to do a lot last year. We’ll ask him to do a lot this year. There’s a lot of offensive pressure on him to deliver every night, but you still got to go out there and play the other side of the ball.

“He’s a young guy that’s growing into being a leader, growing into who he is. We won 54 games last year. He was first team All-Pro. I know there’s not anything above first team. that’s about as good as you get. He must have done a lot of really good things. Like all our guys, he’s got to improve in areas. He knows that. He’s not afraid to work.

“Your defense is based on help and help principles. But if (a teammate) gets beat every time, I say, ‘Oh, my God I got to get over and help again.’ If (a teammate) shuts down his guy, there’s a calmness in me. I’m not over-helping. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my.’

“It’s a trust factor of doing your job on defense. It’s not always relying on the trust that is built in. Your object as a defender is to not use that help all that time. Use it when guys make great moves. You can’t get beat on average moves. You can’t get beat on just average stuff. You gotta just make guys work hard to beat you. It’s simple things.

“In the end, if you play on a team that is championship caliber team, there is a huge amount of trust. That trust comes from you doing your job night after night after night after night, so that everybody can trust each other.”

The Rockets are hoping that a lineup that includes three players — Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley — who love to sink their teeth in on defense can rub off and put some bite into Harden’s defense.

“It’s not the fact that I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m a pretty good defender. It’s me being focused on the small things that I lose track of. I know that. Like I said, in order for Rockets to reach potential, I got to get better at that end.”